While attending a marriage seminar on communication, Tom and his wife Peg listened to the instructor declare, "It is essential that husbands and wives know the things that are important to each other." He asked Tom, "Can you describe your wife's favorite flower?" Tom leaned over, touched his wife's arm gently and whispered, "Pillsbury All-Purpose, isn't it?" The rest of the story is not pleasant. —Author unknown

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Poison ivy: Don’t scratch where it itches

You may be, as I am, itching to get out and garden again.

But not literally. Learn to recognize and avoid poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac. I thought was immune to it since I’d brushed up against poison ivy at various times in my life and nothing happened. Then a few years ago, after hand-digging a new bed in the back yard, my arms started to blister, then itch. It was not the kind of itch from a mosquito; this seemed far more insidious, as if it was coming from deep inside.

The culprit is URUSHIOL, a toxin found in the oil of poison ivy, oak and sumac.

Luckily, my garden-writer friend Jan Riggenbach had alerted me to Zanfel. It’s an over-the-counter tube of gritty wash that helps remove urushiol from the skin. The product bonds with the toxin, which is then washed away with water.

Courtesy of zanfel.com

I learned that after the first five minutes to two hours after exposure, neither scratching nor skin-to-skin contact spreads the rash; the watery fluid from the blisters doesn’t spread it either.

The problem is, you don’t always realize you’ve come in contact with the plant right away. You can be infected from a pet who brushes against it, a garden tool, even breathing smoke from a fire built of dried garden waste. Don’t burn suspicious plants! Urushiol remains active in dead poison ivy plants for up to five years in wet climates and nine years in dry climates.

If you think you’ve come in contact with poison ivy, IMMEDIATELY wash all areas with plain water and soap, including your clothing and pets. After five minutes to two hours, the toxin binds itself to your skin. That’s when Zanfel comes in handy.

Severe cases may require steroids from a physician.

I’ve tried other products but this is the best, most effective one. To my surprise, I recently learned it’s manufactured in the Des Moines suburb of Clive, Iowa.

The makers of Zanfel have not asked me or paid me to promote it. I did score a free tube at the 55th annual Iowa State University Shade Tree Short Course and Iowa Nursery and Landscape Association Conference.

I hope I won’t need it. But when that’s gone, I’ll be buying more. It works.

For more information on how to identify toxic plants and how to deal with them, see www.zanfel.com.

The genius of place

I’ve often been tempted to enter the marvelous Gardening Gone Wild’s Picture This photo Contest but have either been too intimidated, too busy, or just plain lazy. But the current subject is close to my heart: “Genius Loci—The Special Atmosphere of a Place.”

A sense of place—with family, respect, tolerance, and love—is essential to my well being.

Growing up on a northeast Iowa farm, I was imprinted with 180-degree skies—stunning orange-red sunsets, a quilt of stars against midnight, brilliant lightning cracking wide a purple dome—and the delicate cadence and subtle contours of rolling hills. The special scent of summer rain. The luminous black earth. Scent of fresh-mown hay. Delicate flavor of newly dug potatoes. The particular feel of soil drying my hands. The fuzz of zinnia stems. My thumbnails green from shelling peas. The swish of corn stalks taller than my head as I walked between rows.

The phrase “down to earth” carries special meaning to me. It is my love of the land, a gratitude. This is my place.

I have thrilled to the sights of tulip fields and windmills in Holland, ferns and glaciers in New Zealand, the majestic fjords of Norway. I have photographed poppies with the Parthenon, sunflowers in Monet’s garden, and hibiscus with the pyramids in Mexico.

But I am still moved by the subtle beauty of my home state.

And so, even though I may have images more exotic or technically more proficient, I am nominating this image, taken last summer as I pedaled my bicycle across Iowa with 20,000 other people (see www.ragbrai.com).

Iowa: Beautiful Land.

10 (or so) Moments in 2010

Inspired by my friend Jeanne Ambrose’s blog today (www.heartbreakrecoverykitchen.com), here are 10 moments (okay, a few more) from 2010. I’m striving to stay in the moment as much as I can to receive whatever is here, now.

1. I’m grateful for work I love. Those of you who have been laid off from a job you loved may be able to relate. The loss is not merely economic. It’s a body blow to lose a creative outlet, a chance to help, a way to participate in professional life. One day this summer, leaving Meredith after a long day of freelance work as project editor on Better Homes & Gardens Rose Gardening (buy it at that link!), I drove home in a rosy glow of happiness that I was once again employed doing something I loved. Thanks also to editors who hired me for Bloomberg News, Lowe’s, Zelenka Nursery, and magazines Gardening How-To, Horticulture, Iowa Gardening, BHG Country Gardens, BHG Garden Ideas and Outdoor Living, BHG Landscape Solutions, Flea Market Gardens (coming out in March) and others.

2. I get a lump in my throat steaming past the Statue of Liberty. Because the unpronounceable Icelandic volcano scuttled our plans for Italy, my husband and I took an unexpected 6-day trip to New York City in late April-early May. We had a marvelous time visiting museums (we are history and art JUNKIES), visiting friends and relatives, and seeing Broadway plays (“In the Heights” and “Billy Elliot,” starring amazing Iowa native Alex Ko!) We couldn’t believe our fortune being about 10 feet away from the crystalline voice of Judy Collins at the Cafe Carlyle. But the thing that surprised me most was how I felt as our boat pulled alongside the Statue of Liberty. As with seeing Stonehenge, the Grand Canyon, the monuments of Washington, D.C., the Eiffel Tower, the Parthenon, and other icons, a surge of emotions overwhelmed me.

3. I get a lump in my throat bicycling across Iowa. In all but three summers since 1993, I’ve spent all or most of a week on RAGBRAI, the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa. Now its 39th year, RAGBRAI is the oldest, largest and longest touring bicycle ride in the world. People who believe Iowa is flat are in for a big surprise. I travel with Team Larry, a herd of about 20 cats from around the United States who assemble, Brigadoon-like, once a year for a week. We arrange ahead of time to camp in the yards of private homes (thank you again, hosts!) True, there’s some sweat, aching muscles and whining, but mostly it’s a week spent laughing and hanging out together. Especially in the first couple of mornings, when the sun spreads its apricot rays and the dew is fresh on the cornfields, I’m overwhelmed with the beauty of Iowa and filled with gratitude that my body is able to pedal these 430-some miles with 15,000 of my closest friends.

4. I celebrate important traditions. This is the 15th Christmas I’ve decorated cutout sugar cookies with my “Little Sister” Chelsie and the 23rd year we’ve observed the Wiley Wine Tasting (Chateauneuf-du-Pape this year). It was the 19th year for Mother-Daughter Weekend with my mom, Kathy Grauerholz and her mother, Doris Nero (our mothers met in the hospital when Kathy and I were born)! It’s the 6th year we’ve done the Senior Prom (aka Des Moines Metro Opera Gala) with two or three other couples and approximately the same for the Weeg-Grauerholz-Schmidt-Wiley Dinner. The year isn’t complete without these traditions.

5. I get to type hunched over with a cat on my lap. A perk of freelancing!

Buck's goatee

Buster

6. I see—and photograph—some amazing plants!

Sunrise Sunset rose

Bleeding hearts

Hellebores

Frog and daylily

Iris

Ornamental cotton

Tree peony

Orchid

7. One word: FAMILY!

8. It’s great to live in Des Moines, with close access to Broadway shows, the amazing Iowa State Fair, wonderful local talent, miles of bicycle trails, and a $40 million sculpture park downtown.

9. Beauty all around. This is Dixie and Henry Brueck’s barn near Battle Creek, Iowa, and the sky in Manchester, Iowa, in July.

10. A final word: FRIENDS! Too many to show here. I’m beyond grateful for the people in my life.

Here’s wishing you many wonderful moments in the year to come.

Eat your landscape

Rosalind Creasy’s nummy new book, Edible Landscaping: Now You Can Have Your Gorgeous Garden and Eat It Too! looks almost good enough to eat.

Ros, a friend and fellow member of the Garden Writers Association, coined the now-ubiquitous term “edible landscaping” in 1982 when she published her first book on the subject. Thirty years ago, putting swiss chard and tomatoes with the roses in a front yard was considered radical. Now even the White House is doing it.

Package her new book (currently $26.37 at Amazon) with a high-quality trowel or my favorite transplant shovel from Radius Tools ($29.99 at Amazon, and no, I don’t get anything for recommending these!) for a wonderful Christmas gift.

Many of us are adding edibles to our yards for the first time. Ros gives valuable information for experienced gardeners and for beginners. In the chapter devoted to “Designing with Vegetables” she recommends starting small with a 9-foot by 3-foot pine tomato box. A friend of hers in Pennsylvania grew three tomatoes (Ros says there’s room for 8 plants): a cherry, ‘Celebrity’ and ‘Early Girl’ that yielded 67.5 pounds in one season.

Luscious photographs show how veggies can be as gorgeous as flowers.You don’t need a lot of space; pages 172-173 show the design for Ros’ front-yard edible patio garden in California packed with sesame, edamame, basil, strawberries, peppers, and more. The patio holds nine permanent wine barrel containers and a few permanent beds with a blackberry vine, climbing rose, and annual vines and flowers. She changes the contents of other large decorative containers every year.

Common-sense design techniques pepper the book. For example, she mentions that so many large homes with large lawns have such tiny garden beds that are out of scale with their surroundings.

“When you create planting beds, whether they are edible or not, make them sizeable, and do it proudly and with the exuberance necessary to create a sense of place,” she writes.

Exuberance, indeed.

Thanks, Ros, for yours.

Ros Creasy

A wealth of Wealthy apples

With fall leaves whirling in the outdoor blender that is today’s weather, I realized it was past time to peel and slice a bag of beautiful homegrown Wealthy apples my parents grew on their northeast Iowa farm.

Wealthy apples

Few people seem to know Wealthy apples these days, and although I look for them at farmer’s markets and in stores, I never spot them. But they are the secret to my mother’s outstanding pie.

Wealthys, like their newer and absolutely wonderful cousins, Honeycrisp apples, were developed in Minnesota. The Honeycrisp, introduced in 1991, is the a cross of Macoun and Honeygold made by the University of Minnesota research team.

The Wealthy apple was selected about 1868 by horticulturist Peter Gideon, near Excelsior. “It was acclaimed as Grand Champion at a number of state fairs around the country and eventually became one of the five most-produced apples in all of America,” according to Minnesota Harvest. DNA testing showed it is, in fact, one of the parents of the great Haralson apple.

An obituary for Mr. Gideon states he named the apple in honor of his wife, whose maiden name was Wealthy Hull.

I found a mail-order source for Wealthy apple trees from Grandpa’s Orchard in Coloma, Missouri. The website says Red Wealthy “is a compact tree that bears very early and prolifically. It can tend to be biennial, so thinning early and vigorously to reduce an excessive crop will help with the next years. It blooms over a along period, so it is often used as a pollinator for other varieties.” All of that is true for my parents’ tree, which I believe must be at least 50 years old, if not older.

The flavor is sweet with a hint of tartness, and the apples bake down nicely into a just-mushy-enough consistency to be recognizable but not quite applesauce.

If you can find Wealthys, slice up some Wealthys and follow my mom’s pie recipe, shown here exactly as she gave it to me. And make the crust from scratch, please. You cannot make a better pie apple.

Orla Wiley’s Apple Pie

I really don`t have a recipe as such–just about a cup of sugar, about 1/3 cup of flour, cinnamon–probably at least a teaspoon and mix it all with the apples. After they are in the pan I put some pieces of butter scattered over the apples and put the crust on. I usually sprinkle some sugar on top and bake at 425 degrees for about 15 min. then reduce to 375 degrees for about 45 min.

Or take the easy way out as I did today: Make apple crisp.

Wealthy apple crisp

Either way, you’ll garner a wealth of compliments.

This is the House that Pumpkins Built

The Dallas Arboretum really knows how to dress for the season. On my visit there for last month’s Garden Writers Association symposium, I saw the early development of their famous Great Pumpkin Festival, home of the only Pumpkin Village in the world! (Click for link to even more color!)

If you’re in Dallas from now till November 14, check out 40,000 pumpkins and 150,000 fall-blooming flowers including chrysanthemums, salvia, coleus, ornamental grasses and impatiens.

Pumpkin House at Dallas Arboretum

Straw horses

Lining a flower bed with bright pumpkins sets off the edges

Orange orbs add more texture to gorgeous layers

Burgundy-black grass and orange pumpkin: Dynamic duo!

Peonies, irises and more!

It’s sure pretty in the garden right now. Not much time to write; I’m going to try to get some more plants in the ground before it rains today. But here’s some eye candy that’s blooming right now. I have FOUR, count ‘em FOUR, beautiful yellow intersectional peonies (including Bartzella and Garden Treasure) blooming this year. Also called Itoh hybrids, these are a cross between a regular herbaceous peony and a tree peony, producing marvelous blooms and stunning foliage that looks great all year long. They’re expensive (often about $100) but worth the investment.

Wish I knew the name of the pale blue iris; it’s from Rainbow Iris Farm in southern Iowa. Love it. The golden one is ‘Private Treasure’. See how the difference in light changes the color of that golden iris? Yum!

Private Treasure and cultivar unknown blue iris

'Private Treasure' iris

'Bartzella'

'Sunrise Sunset' shrub rose

Clematis integrifolia with euphorbia

Tasks ahead!

Beautiful blooms from my garden

gold-heart-budsGosh, it’s pretty in the garden today. At 81 degrees this afternoon in Des Moines, the weather is just plain crazy. I can’t believe how many things are blooming … the redbud is almost ready to burst … early daffodils are spent … pulmonaria, bleeding hearts and brunnera are in bloom or ready to unfurl. An early peony (Paeonia tenuifolia) looks like it’ll be blooming by the end of this week (a full month ahead of normal.)

Here’s a little show of what I saw in the garden today.

Bleeding hearts

Bleeding hearts

Chionodoxa forbesii (glory-of-the-snow) with Anemone blanda below

Chionodoxa forbesii (glory-of-the-snow) with Anemone blanda below

Early cut-leaf peony (Paeonia tenuifolia)

Early cut-leaf peony (Paeonia tenuifolia)

Daffodils (not sure which cultivar; perhaps 'Faith'?)

Daffodils (not sure which cultivar; perhaps 'Faith'?)

Trout lily (Erythronium americanum)

Trout lily (Erythronium americanum)'Ivory Prince' hellebore

White hyacinth

White hyacinth

Time to cut the grass

Well, the lawn has been growing rather well with all the heat and rain but I’m not talking about mowing. The grass you need to cut RIGHT NOW is ornamental.

Ornamental grasses are some of the easiest and low-maintenance plants you can grow. Divide them when the centers start showing no growth, and cut them back in the spring before new shoots emerge. That’s about all they need. And they’re deer resistant! What’s not to love?

I saw a stand of ‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass this weekend in a parking lot and noticed that green shoots are already coming up through the old, dead strands. If you wait too long, you won’t be able to easily snip out the old stuff.

I just use a hand pruner, but for large, established grasses, a hedge trimmer works really well.

Here’s how some of my dwarf miscanthus looked before and after cutting about two weeks ago.

Happy hacking!

Before

Before

After

After

Naked in the garden: It seems so wrong, but feels so right

It seemed so wrong, but felt so right.

I just had to go naked today.

In the garden. I mean, the garden went naked. What were you thinking?

It’s not even April, but there I was, raking and pulling back the accumulated leaves and other debris that insulate my garden beds over the winter. Normally, I would not exhibit this kind of behavior, no matter how good it felt. It’s just a little too early.

But nature is the wild card in gardening. We had so much snow cover this winter everything looks great. Hellebore leaves are green, not shriveled and sere after wind and ice burns. The roses are already pushing out new leaves from their tips. Sedums, chrysanthemums and many other perennials are up and at ‘em. Everything seems way ahead of schedule.

But even more important: We’re supposed to hit 70-degree weather this week. I mean HIGH 70s this Thursday. April Fool! That means everything’s going to go into a wild growth spurt. And they’ll do it whether or not they’re covered up.

Hence, nudity.

I know, I know. Mother Nature could still send frost and snow, wrecking all these budding beauties. But, oh, it did feel good today.

Hellebore in my garden

Hellebore in my garden

Spring gardens—warp speed ahead!

We had 6.75 inches of snow in Des Moines last Friday and by Sunday, when most of it melted away, spring was everywhere. Ever since we set our clocks ahead one hour, time seems to have gotten away from me and is moving at warp speed.

There’s still a curious mound of snow on the north side of the house where we shoveled off our porch roof. But here are various signs of life. I’m waiting to do my full spring garden cleanup for another week or two … it’s still early. But boy, is it exciting! Here’s what’s blooming now.

Hellebore

Hellebore

Crocuses

Crocuses

Even the sedums are growing!

Even the sedums are growing!

Birthdays and 'Burning Hearts'

My garden friend Mary Walters is celebrating her birthday today. (No, I don’t know which one and even if I did, I’d never tell!) But I think I’ll celebrate by buying a few ‘Burning Hearts’ bleeding hearts from her Great Garden Plants mail-order company, based in Michigan.

'Burning Hearts'

'Burning Hearts'

‘Burning Hearts’ flame with crimson-blue flowers etched with white rims above blue-gray, lacy, fernlike foliage. It’s part of a series of bleeding hearts bred from the Dicentra eximia family (check out the beautiful pink ‘Candy Hearts’ and white ‘Ivory Hearts’.) According to Mary’s blog, ‘Burning Hearts’ is a cross between D. peregrina, D. formosa, and D. eximia from Japanese breeder Akira Shiozaki.

Unlike their cousin, the graceful and perhaps better-known Dicentra spectabilis, the fringed bleeding hearts seem to last forever in the garden instead of going dormant by early summer.

According to Great Garden Plants, they are also fragrant! Guess I’ll have to get down on my tummy to get a whiff.

But best of all: These are tough perennials that love the shade. Plant them in moist, well-drained soil. They’ll grow 10 inches high and 12 inches wide and keep blooming until fall. But even without their luscious hearts, the touch-me foliage alone is a good reason to grow these.

Now back to our Birthday Girl. I know I’ve got pix of her I’ve taken when visiting her garden in the Holland, Michigan, area, but I’ll just poach this cute photo of her with Chloe, the golden doodle who loves to chomp at and romp in this season’s snow. 021610_4

Her effervescent business partner, Chris Hansen, reveals more about Mary (along with a 25 percent discount for orders more than $100 today only!) on their website. He lists 12 things you might not know about Mary.

And this is neat: Check out number 11, her favorite “goosebump” plant which I truly did not see until I reached this point in the writing of this blog. Wow! Great minds, kindred souls, and all that.

She’s headed to England this summer and will report on her trip at www.GreatGardenPlantsBlog.com. Can’t wait to read the report.

Happy Birthday, Mary!

We're eating more beets! Edible gardening on the increase

I don’t know if you remember the G.B. Trudeau book, “We’re Eating More Beets!” The cover art lampooned USA Today’s incessant use of graphics to show trends.

Well, I think we really ARE eating more beets. Or tomatoes. Or lettuce, at least. The Garden Writers Association just released the 2009 Edibles Gardening Trends Research Report.

beets

The survey showed that 92% had previous gardening experience with edibles but 7% (7.7 million households) were new. One-third of the experienced gardeners said they grew more edibles in 2009 than in the previous year.

And this year, 37% of households plan to increase their edible gardens.

Why the increase? Three in five (59%) respondents who plan on growing more edibles next year are doing so for better nutrition. But almost as many, 58%, are growing edibles for personal satisfaction, and 52% for better taste, variety or selection.

Other interesting data:

Households doing vegetable gardening were highest in the South and lowest in the West.

Vegetable gardening was highest with the 25-44 age group and lowest with the 18-24 age group.

First-time edibles gardeners came mostly from the South and least from the Northeast.

The more experienced edibles gardeners came mostly from the South and least from the West.

About 38 percent of the respondents planted vegetables, with 15 percent planting fruits and 18 percent herbs.

What will YOU be growing in 2010?

Baptisia, the Perennial Plant of the Year

Newer, when it comes to plants, is not always better. Take, for example, the selection of Baptisia australis as the 2010 Perennial Plant of the Year by the Perennial Plant Association.

Baptisia australis photo by PPA

Baptisia australis photo by PPA

It’s a gorgeous, easy-care North American native plant with year-round interest.

Sadly, I don’t grow it because I don’t have much full-sun space (it can take some shade but needs staking—and I’m just not up for that).

But I should find a spot for it somewhere; it’s resistant to deer browsing because alkaloids in the plant give it a bitter taste.

Plant in well-drained soil; it’s drought-tolerant once established.

It’s hardy almost anywhere, from Zones 3 to 9.

Violet-blue flowers in early summer last about 3 to 4 weeks, then create beautiful brown seed pods that look great in dried flower arrangements.

Use it in the back of the border; it grows 3 to 4 feet tall in a clump about that wide.

Don’t divide and move baptisia. Because it grows with a long tap root, once you plant it, it wants to stay put. That’s part of its low-maintenance charm.

The common name, false indigo, comes because it was used as a substitute dye for the true indigo plant. The Latin name is derived from the Greek word bapto, meaning to dip or immerse; australis is Latin for southern.

Check out plantsman Tony Avent’s article about baptisias—he calls them “Redneck Lupines.”

Where can you get it? Baptisia is available from many mail-order sources, including Tony’s Plant Delights (he carries six different baptisias), Jung Seed (with four from the PrairieBlues series developed at the Chicago Botanic Garden) and Garden Crossings, a Michigan-based mail-order company (six kinds).

Go with this oldie. It’s a goodie.

Visit AAS award-winning flowers and veggies

Don’t you love knowing what’s new?  Get close to the horticultural action this summer by visiting one of the 200 All-America Selections Display Gardens.

Echinacea 'Powwow Wild Berry'/AAS photo
2010 winner Echinacea ‘Powwow Wild Berry’/AAS photo

What IS the All-America Selections? The organization exists “to promote new garden seed varieties with superior garden performance judged in impartial trials in North America.”

Every year, AAS (based in the Chicago area) tests new flower, fruit and vegetable seeds in trial grounds around the country. A panel of  judges decides if each variety is improved enough in at least two of these areas: earliness to bloom or harvest; disease or pest tolerance; novel colors or flavors; novel flower forms; total yield; length of flowering or harvest; and overall performance.

AAS trials have been conducted every year since 1932. It’s a true education to visit to the trial or display gardens, where you can literally compare various types of say, begonias, side by side. I love to compare the various growth habits and size differences. Below you see a view of a begonia trials at Bluebird Nursery, a wholesale grower in Clarkson, Nebraska, last year. No, it’s not as gorgeous as a botanic garden, but certainly useful to see.

This year’s AAS winners include ‘PowWow Wild Berry’ coneflower; ‘Mesa Yellow’ gaillardia; ‘Moonsong Deep Orange’ African marigold; ‘Twinny Peach’ snapdragon; ‘Endurio Sky Blue Martien’ viola; ‘Double Zahara Cherry’ zinnia; ‘Double Zahara Fire’ zinnia; ‘Zahara Starlight Rose’ zinnia; and ‘Shiny Boy’ watermelon. Though AAS classified the watermelon as a “vegetable,” usually there are several veggie winners. Not this year, proving that none of the new veggies tested were innovative enough to be dubbed winners. Read more about each on the AAS website.

From my preview of this year’s winners, I vote for any of the zinnias. And I must say (completely immodestly) that I really like the photo I got of the new snapdragon, ‘Twinny Peach’.

AAS begonia trials/Deb Wiley photo

AAS begonia trials/Deb Wiley photo

'Twinny Peach' snapdragon/Deb Wiley photo

'Twinny Peach' snapdragon/Deb Wiley photo

Iowa readers: Visit one of these locations to see more this summer: Enabling Garden in Altoona; Noelridge Park, Cedar Rapids; Vander Veer Botanical Park, Davenport; Discovery Garden (at the Iowa State Fair), Des Moines; Dubuque Arboretum and Botanical Gardens; ISU Home Demonstration Garden, Lewis; the Master Gardeners Demonstration Garden, Urbandale; and the Cedar Valley Arboretum, Waterloo.

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