The Vinegar Hit Man

Every year the shore birds do me a favor. They drop poison ivy seeds everywhere in my garden. I’m allergic and I know each time I make contact I’m in for ten days of itching. Just two weeks ago I put on disposable gloves and long sleeves and ripped out a bunch of it. I thought I had taken enough precautions. I use Tecnu  and it’s good at removing the oil. Unfortunately, you have to know where that oil landed. I think it spritzes through the air. I didn’t realize it hit my face. A day later I was swollen and itchy and looking like I’d lost a battle to a vicious foe. I vowed to keep clear of the stuff forevermore. The trouble was, I still needed to get rid of the vile ivy. I thought I’d try a concoction I’d been reading about on the Internet. Here’s the recipe:

1 Gallon white vinegar

2 cups Epsom Salt

¼ cup Dawn liquid detergent

poison ivy 2poison ivy 1

10 AM and 3 PM

Here’s what happened. On this sunny morning the triple-leaved culprit looked lushly green. I doused it with the special mixture. Five hours later the lushness was gone, replaced by dried, crinkled leaves. Now, I didn’t know what was going on under the dirt, but I hoped the roots suffered the same fate as the leaves. Time will tell.

Of course, this mixture must be used with caution.  Any plant you happen to spill it on will sport crispy leaves. So it’s not a solution if the ivy is entwined among the lavender or threading through the daylilies.

The local extension agent suggested I get 20% vinegar. My gallon from the grocery store was only 5%. Just another thing I didn’t know – there is cleaning strength vinegar. If 5% crisped up those leaves in five hours, 20% would surely whack them. Take note – 20% will blister skin and do worse to eyes.

Further research turns up quite a bit of controversy. Some say the vinegar only gets the leaves. Sounds like repeat applications are necessary. The good thing is the vinegar quickly breaks down in the soil, so no problem with planting at the site a week later. And Epsom salts are made of Sulphur and magnesium. Both good for the soil.

In theory gardening conjures visions of relaxation amidst the beauty of nature. Not so for us on the ground. There is battle to be waged with formidable foes – the weeds, the poison ivy, the deer. We must be ever vigilant or that vision will not be our reality.

Happy Father’s Day



Happy Father’s Day, Dad.  Wish you could see my garden where a number of your pieces reside. I have a stool you made from a big, fat tree stump.  You fitted it with three legs and varnished it up good.  It’s a slice from a swamp maple that once grew on a Mississippi River bank. When its leafy days were over you thought that wood’s too pretty to throw in the fire pit. You didn’t trim the skirt of bark. Maybe you thought the dignity of the woodland resided in that rough protective coating. Maybe you thought it just looked better that way.

You took the trouble to drive it across the country to my house and now it sits on our front porch next to a Majesty Palm (Ravenea rivularis). The stool came out of the Mississippi bottomlands and the Palm is native to Madagascar. Two plants from opposite sides of the world sit comfortably together. Nearby the Atlantic tides cycle through the day.

You recycled before we had recycling bins. There is something spiritual about making a new use out of something that is about to be discarded. Its life isn’t quite over. You put on your practical thinking cap and gave it a second chance.  From many examples, you gave your children the seeds to look at the true value of things, take no things for granted and chose re-making as part of living a satisfying life. I know,” live within your means” was a favorite mantra out of your mouth and into our ears.

These words reside in the realm of cyberspace. A place we never knew existed when you were here. Maybe in that unseen orbit you’ll run into them. It would make me happy to think that could happen.


Little Charmer Cosmos

cosmos7 - CopyThe Spanish priests named this little Mexican charmer cosmos, indicating it is a balanced universe on its own and therefore a thing of beauty. I grew Sensation mix (Cosmos bipinnatus) from seed indoors in early spring. Definitely a plant for dummies – they sprout quickly, transplant with ease and love lousy soil and dry conditions in bright sun. They flower until frost with some deadheading and reseed the next year – fingers crossed.

They are shallow rooted so do well among lilies. They are a perfect cottage garden and cutting garden choice. cosmos11 - CopyA brown bottle on our coffee table will hold three or four blooms every day until frost. The colors range from downy bright white to almost chocolate velvet.

It’s best not to give cosmos a lot of fertilizer or rich soil. That signals them to put out a mass of foliage and not much in the way of blooms. I did transplant some to an area covered with Leafgro and they have yet to flower.  Note to self: read up and heed the experts.

Cosmos, also called Mexican Aster, is part of the Asteraceae family so is a close cousin to sunflowers, daisies and asters. cosmos6 - CopyThe foliage is fernlike, giving the plant a delicate look and a beautiful contrast to the stout, sturdy leaves of lilies. Mixing Cosmos among the strap-like leaves of Stella de Oro daylilies would also be a pleasant combination.

Cosmos comes in handy as an introduction to flowers for young gardeners. Quick sprouting and easy blooms reaps generous rewards and will surely charm budding horticulturalists as they did the Spanish priests so long ago.

Bird Lessons from the Soulful Gardener

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Did you know that domestic cats kill more birds than insecticides? That’s the story from the American Bird Conservancy.

It’s news to me. I thought letting the cat out was a rather harmless activity. I found out the Bird Conservancy has a “Cat Indoor Campaign” in which owners sign on to keep the cat indoors. Of course it’s only half the problem because there are many unowned cats roaming the countryside and feral cat communities that contribute to the slaughter of about 2.4 billion birds every year in the United States alone.

I was lucky to be a guest at the May meeting of the Master Gardeners of the Eastern Shore. The speaker was Heather Zindash, a Certified Professional Horticulturalist. She spoke to us about the need to keep the birds in mind when planning a garden. Her website, The Soulful Gardener is a “gardening and therapy-through-horticulture stopping place to help connect people with gardening and nature.”


Heather was a font of bird and garden information. I’d never heard of “nature deficit disorder.” Now I know there’s a name to the epidemic of time spent staring at a screen be it cell phone, tablet, computer or television. Connecting our children to the outdoors sounds like a preeminent goal for parents.

She talked about birds being “biological indicators”. Remember the proverbial canary in the coal mine.  Birds need much more oxygen than humans because of all the flying they do.  Therefore they are bioindicators, detecting toxic gases before we do. The state of their health is a good forewarning of environmental decline because they carry measurable toxins in their feathers.

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As gardeners we should consider the three elements needed to attract birds to our gardens: food, water and shelter. All we need to think about are berries, nuts, seeds and nectar for our feathered friends and water in the form of bird baths, ponds, creek or rain gardens. Adequate shelter would be our shrubs, evergreens and thickets. Pay attention to these three elements and the birds will reward you as a natural insecticide. The circle of life will be complete.

Heather talked about the Christmas Bird Count, the longest running citizen science project, sponsored by the National Audubon Society. It’s been going on for over a century.  Every year the count runs from December 14 through January 5. To participate check the Audubon page for a circle of counters near you. This is not a count that you do on your own, you must officially join a circle.

Possibly many of the master gardeners already have much of this bird information in their heads, but Heather loaded me up with new knowledge of the importance of birds in our gardens.

The Gardens of Onancock

Onancock1Virginia Historic Garden Week began in 1927 when the Garden Club of Virginia organized a flower show to save the trees Thomas Jefferson had planted on his Monticello lawn. This year, continuing the tradition of fundraising for restoration and preservation of Virginia’s historic public gardens, the Virginia Garden Tour Week ran from April 27 to May 4.

The Garden Week Guidebook is available online.  This year there were 31 tours hosted by 47 Garden Club of Virginia member clubs. The guidebook describes with pictures each of the 156 properties on tour this year. Over 3,000 volunteers work to make this oldest of garden tours a success.

For one blogger’s take on the Virginia garden tours read Kristin’s post on the topic in her her Countdown to Friday blog. She took the Richmond tour in 2018.

The garden club women of Virginia sure know how to arrange flowers. We were not allowed to photograph their arrangements but here is a peek at some posted on their site.

So three of us got in the car and journeyed down to the Virginia tip of the Eastern Shore on the last day of garden week. Our rewards were glorious spring sunshine, spectacular views of fields and bay, delightful creeks, historic houses and beautiful flowers. The docents, with their soft Virginia accents, were gracious and informative at every site.


Our first stop was 30 miles south of Onancock:  Eyre Hall plantation in Cheriton. It’s a National Historic Landmark that has been lovingly maintained by 8 generations of descendants of Littleton Eyre who inherited the King’s land grant and built the manor in 1758. Tall, ancient boxwoods  surround flower bed parterres. A peony garden overlooking fields and Cherrystone Creek was in full bloom. Crepe myrtles tower over mixed borders. The family graciously keeps the garden open to the public yearlong for free and without reservations.


Ker Place

We motored back to Onancock where the rest of the Eastern Shore gardens were on view. Ker Place on Market Street served as the tour headquarters. It’s an elegant Federal style mansion that is now the home of the Eastern Shore of Virginia Historical Society. We enjoyed the pleasant grounds while we ate our bag lunches.

Then it was on to other houses, all walking distance in Onancock.

Scott Hall is the oldest house in town, built in 1769. In the back yard


Scott Hall Cemetery


a gated iron fence encloses the family burial plot where the headstone of Commodore Zedechiah Whaley rests. Whaley died in the last naval battle of the Revolutionary War while chasing the British Royal Navy down the bay to Onancock. The British had been continuously harassing the farmers on the Maryland and Virginia creeks. That was the Battle of the Barges and took place on the day Great Britain and the United States signed a Treaty of Peace.

The Benjamin Fosque House was next. It’s a Victorian built in 1883 and has a serene garden of white-only flowers surrounding a swimming pool.

Onancock22The Grace Ames House is a relatively new vintage craftsman home. It’s a Montgomery Ward kit house built in 1927. All three homes have restful views of Onancock Creek.

Onancock4In Virginia we learned from the best. They know how to present a garden tour worth traveling to.


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.