Getting to Know the Natives

Wow!  Maryland is in the business of helping residents buy trees.  I was so lucky to visit a great nursery in Eden, Maryland a few weeks ago. I was told about it by the man who brought me four truckloads of dirt for my swampy backyard. No telling what you can find out by asking questions. The nursery is called How Sweet It Is and it is one sweet garden shopping experience. I’ve never before been to a garden center that sells wine, craft beer and oysters as well as local scraple to name a few unexpected items.

But that was just the beginning of sweet. They told me about the Marylanders Plant Trees Program.

“We launched Marylanders Plant Trees in 2009 to encourage citizens and organizations to partner with the State to plant new trees. Today, citizens can still take advantage of our coupon program to receive $25 off the purchase of a native tree at 86 participating nurseries across the State. The State cost of $20 per coupon is funded through a settlement from a major power generator for Clean Air Act violations, in partnership with the Office of the Attorney General, and Maryland’s participating tree vendors are generously absorbing the remaining $5.”

I was there to purchase water-loving shrubs for a hedge around the back yard. I came home with the car bursting with 30 three-gallon Inkberries (Ilex glabra) and one Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana). The magnolia qualifies for the $25 state coupon. The tree must cost at least $50 and also must be on the Maryland list of natives.

I am getting to know the natives.

I checked out my choice of Inkberry at the Missouri Botanical Garden website. They are the go-to  website for all plant info and a goldmine. Inkberry is native to the eastern U.S. from Maine to Florida and partial to wet, swampy sites. Just the ticket for my yard. A low hedge is what’s needed to define our strangely shaped plot. Inkberry takes well to shaping and will grow from four to eight feet. It’s the perfect backdrop for a perennial garden. Hopefully among the thirty plants there will be one brave stud of a male to do the pollinating to produce the inky black berries the birds will devour. Interesting fact: these berries provided the ink for civil war soldiers to write letters home from the field.


I’m not real good with straight lines.

The Sweetbay Magnolia is for the corner between the hedges on each side. Again this tree is more of a swamp-lover than the Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) and a better size for a small garden. It can be kept shrub size with multiple stems or let grow into a twenty-five foot vase-shaped tree with creamy white, vanilla spiced flowers in June. These are followed by rosy, elegant fruit in the fall. I’ll watch the perimeter grow this summer and wait until next year to fill in the plan with the water-loving garden of my dreams.

Plastic or the Real Thing

aloeRemember how supermarket cashiers used to say ‘paper or plastic?’ Now, thrifty shoppers bring their own bags. We’re encouraged to cut down on disposable plastic. Young, environmentally-conscious waitresses don’t want to give you straws. People frown on plastic bottled water and carry their own reusable carafes.

Still, so much that we use to decorate our homes is made of plastic and chemicals. Upholstery and carpets give off fumes from flame retardants, stain protectors, and moth repellents. Cabinets come plastic-coated.  It’s just part of modern manufacturing.

houseplant plastic

Photo by Madison Inouye

In the spring, when you walk into Home Goods or Michaels, (After the Christmas plastic has been moved out) you’re greeted by plastic spring plants in every size. Some look really good. It’s tempting to decorate a dark corner with a man-made rubber tree that will never drop a leaf. And succulents! The real ones even look like plastic. I’m positive someone in China could make a plastic kalanchoe that would fool a bee.

I must confess I bought a Christmas tree from Balsam Hill. They make beautiful fakes.  Mine looked like a perfectly grown spruce with natural-looking winter decorations artfully perching on the limbs. Only when you reach out to feel a bough do you realize you’re petting plastic. And of course no woodland scent wafts through the room. That I miss.

Artists have been copying nature for centuries in jewelry design, china and silver patterns, wallpaper and fabric. Why not? Nature is artfully beautiful.  They work in every medium, so why would they not use plastic as a medium?

This is my question. Do you really want to add more plastic to your home? If you have space for a real plant, get one even if it’s a philodendron or snake plant. I posted previously on plants’ amazing ability to clean the air. I can’t emphasize that enough.


Who Knew? Tax Day is for the Birds


hummingbird 1Maureen Kennedy spoke to our garden club this week. She said the easiest way to remember is tax day. Put out your hummingbird feeders on April 15. Any earlier in the Mid-Atlantic and you are wasting your sugar water.

Kennedy is the owner of My Backyard, a shop in Ocean Pines, Maryland dedicated to her love of hummingbirds. She sells all sorts of feeders, bird houses, bird baths, flags and even gift items such as local honey and handmade soap. She shared her vast knowledge of these littlest of birds. They are so tiny; they weigh about as much as a penny. They fly through the air at a top speed of 60 mph, beating their wings about 80 times a second. They need a lot of food for all that exercise and for their long migration down to South America each winter. You will not see flocks of hummingbirds on the migration trail. These beautiful feathered creatures may look romantic, but they don’t mate for life. They’re loners, making that extensive trip solo. They have feet but can’t walk. These are meant only to get a grip on their perch. It’s good to get a feeder with a landing spot, as it gives them a rest.

hummingbird 3Hummers have excellent vision and are attracted to flowers by sight. They are partial to bright reds and yellows.  Scents won’t attract them because they have no sense of smell. Think salvia, butterfly weed, cardinal flower, scarlet bee balm, trumpet vine, honeysuckle, columbines, daylilies, and lupines; biennials such as foxgloves and hollyhocks; and many annuals, including cleomes, impatiens, fuschias and petunias. Their long beaks are capable of getting way into tubular flowers for extra large doses of pollen.

Their tongues can thrust three inches out to lap up your sugar water. No sucking, just lapping with tongues made especially for that purpose. They definitely have a sweet tooth, but need protein for energy. You can help by putting an apple in a separate feeder. They won’t go for the apple, but will choose the fruit flies that the apple attracts. That’s their protein. When they fly they keep their beaks open. It’s like a non-stop net that scoops up tiny insects all day long.

If they like your feeder, they will remember your location and return and teach their young to find you too. They lay one to three eggs twice a season. The chicks break out of the shells in thirteen to twenty-two days and are gone from the nest by thirty days or sooner. They will never return to that tiny nest their mother so carefully made of plant fiber and spider silk.

Remember the new reason to look forward to tax day.


My Backyard is at the Southgate, Ocean Pines and on the web at

You can find out everything about hummingbirds at

The Biggest Little Farm

farm scene pig

This is not Emma

We were off to the movies this weekend – The Ocean City Film Festival. Yes, Ocean City has a film festival. The feature film on Saturday was The Biggest Little Farm. It was directed by Worcester County native John Chester.

What a delightful treat for anyone to see, especially gardeners. Talk about being entertained by a documentary on farming while getting an appreciation of the natural world. But, they did it. Apricot Lane Farm pulled at our heart strings with a rescue dog named Todd and a pig named Emma whose best friend was Mr. Greasy the rooster. It was plain-spoken and direct and all about balance. How do you get snails to stop devouring fruit trees and coyotes to stop murdering chickens? Come to find out, ducks love snails and coyotes do just as well bumping off gophers, who, by the way, have been doing a number on tree roots. As I said, it’s all about balance. However, you can forget about birds and stone fruit. That’s all about sharing.

farm scene

This is not Apricot Lane Farm

John and Molly Chester start out with a utopian dream – create the most diverse farm in California and live an idyllic life on the land. Chester is an award winning director, filmmaker and cinematographer. It shows. There is graceful drone footage of the land, night vision shots of four legged intruders and delicate close ups of flora and fauna unfolding. We are so entertained by the story, we don’t realize we’re getting a lesson on how to live on our planet. There is a moment in the film where Chester looks up at the Milky Way and realizes he is part of that spinning system. This thought is a far more effective teaching tool than a preaching documentary on the demise of our planet.

The subtle takeaway is we can all do our share in our own community.  I came home and swore off Roundup.

The Biggest Little Farm will open in theaters in May. You’ve got to see it.

Do Houseplants Really Clean the Air?


I had to find some way to show my husband  that my obsession with plants is something good. I found it – Phytoremediation. The more plants I bring into the house, the healthier our home will be. Plants clean the air. NASA said so In 1989. They were looking for a way to scrub the air inside space stations for the health of astronauts. They wanted to get rid of formaldehyde and benzene and other cancer causing compounds that are part of our indoor manufactured environment. . Experiments showed that plants actually do the job, some better than others. So I’m off to the races with my obsession.

Boston fernMy Boston fern (Nephrolepis exalta Bostoniensis) in the sun room has thrived through the heat of last summer and the damp cold of this winter. It’s on the list of the ten most effective plants in devouring formaldehyde which gets into our houses in plastic garbage bags, paper towels, facial tissues, rugs, adhesives, gas heating and tobacco smoke. Whew. Would a Boston fern in every room be going overboard?

For many years in another house, a Weeping Fig (Ficus benjamina) lived a very long time with very little attention. In twenty years it grew to six feet. I reluctantly passed it on to a young plant-loving neighbor when we moved. I’ve just gotten another which is much shorter. I’m urging it onward and upward with my new grow light.

houseplants1I’ve had Umbrella Trees before (Schefflera arboricola) and always liked their lush foliage. I added one next to an east window. It should get enough light there for photosynthesis. Then I couldn’t resist a palm. It’s funny, when you buy small houseplants at home centers, they don’t bother to list the botanical name on the tag. They just say “tropical.” I can tell it’s a palm, but the variety is a mystery. I’m hoping it’s an Areca (Chrysalidocarpus lutescens) because that palm is supposed to be the best at eating up the chemicals that come in paint thinners, nail polish remover, glue and the solvents used in the printing, rubber and leather industries. Sounds good to me.

aloeA friend moving to Florida gifted me with a little Aloe Vera plant . This lovely is also known as the “first aid plant.” Great for sun burns at the beach. It’s also on the list of air-improving plants. It is thriving in a sunny window in a guest bedroom.

Kamel Meattle, a New Delhi businessman did a TED Talk on how he cleaned the air in his office building, air that was making him sick. He has been a pioneer in the movement to make work spaces more healthful. He promotes three plants that can change the quality of indoor air: Areca Palm –converts carbon dioxide into oxygen during the day, Mother-in-law’s Tongue -converts carbon dioxide into oxygen at night (good for the bedroom) and Money Plant – devours formaldehyde and VOCs. If these studies are true, that’s wonderful. But if the claims are a little overblown, I still love my houseplants. Their beauty is enough.


I’d never heard of Tillandsia

airplant4At our February garden club meeting we were treated to a talk and hands-on workshop on Tillandsia. These little guys are popularly known as “air plants.” I’d heard the term before but somehow they didn’t seem like serious plants to me. They brought to mind the little animals parents are talked into buying on the boardwalk. Just as hermit crabs and goldfish are real animals with specific needs, so are Tillandsia real plants that need specific care.

It’s a genus of around 650 species of evergreen, perennial flowering plants in the family Bromeliaceae. They are native to the forests, mountains and deserts of northern Mexico and south-eastern United States.  They range through Central America and the Caribbean to mid- Argentina. We can’t grow them outside, but they can be lovely houseplants and summer porch additions to planters and wreaths.

Catherine Winkler, owner of Roots Landscaping (Great Gardens Start at the Roots) brought samples and showed us how to plant and care for our “air plants.”

In Catherine’s opinion, theTillandsia family is underused by gardeners. As their name indicates, they do not grow in soil. They have minimal roots that anchor them to their growing surface. They are not poisonous to little mouths. Think toddlers and puppies. They are super clean, requiring a water spritz two or three times a week. This mimics the showers they would get in their native habitat. Outside, on the Eastern Shore, the summer humidity would take care of their water needs. The broader their leaves, the less water required. The more yellow in their leaf color, the more light they require.

I’m looking forward to the workshop Catherine promised this summer on creating a TIllandsia wreath on a grapevine base.


We made these little guys.

Roots is a full service landscape and garden center in Selbyville, Delaware.

The February Garden is Spelled A N T I C I P A T I O N

“One of the most delightful things about a garden

is the anticipation it provides.” W.E. Johns.

My sister-in-law sent me this quote this morning. How true it is. Thinking about spring is fulfilling in February.

seeds2The basil seeds sprouted in seven days. The chives appeared a few days later. In fourteen days cilantro was pushing up. Then came sage. Little parsley heads were the last to poke through.  Every morning I follow their progress, wishing them onward and upward. I may have been too quick to anticipate. I can’t put the basil out until the middle of April. But the sage, chives, cilantro and parsley, I’m sure, can hit the ground sooner.

My refrigerator is holding perennial seeds taped in packages to the underside of the shelves. I’ve been introduced to a new concept – cold stratification. I’ve planted many perennials, but they always came in pots from the nursery. I never thought about giving seeds a deep freeze before, but I’ve been told, if I seek germination, I better replicate nature. It makes perfect sense. So milkweed, butterfly weed and Echinacea are vacationing for six weeks with the milk, eggs and orange juice. I tried an outdoor method with the hellebore seeds. In January I planted them in peat pots outside where I want them to grow. The pots are dug in at ground level. Hopefully they will sprout in early spring and occupy that real estate for years.

Kevin Lee Jacobs Lifestyle website  gives a comprehensive list of perennial seeds requiring cold stratification.

So I’ll spend these cold, dark days indoors with my overwintered begonias, the tete a tete daffodils from a friend and the amaryllis that’s ready to pop.


Amaryllis Extravagantly Popped 

seeds1 It’s almost time to plant the flower seeds.