Archive for July, 2011

I walk, talk, think, dream, and live gardening and sometimes I get tired of writing about it, so I decided to take a little break and wander through my childhood, just for fun. Thanks for stopping by.

I watched gray squirrels playing recently and wished I had some in my yard, but we have a lot of cats in the neighborhood and the two just don’t mix.

I’ve always liked squirrels-probably because when I was a boy there was a very tame gray squirrel in my neighborhood who would take a peanut from your teeth if you lay very still. If you were real lucky he’d even sit on your chest and roll the peanut in his paws for a minute or two. Of course, you couldn’t breathe much or you’d scare him away, so you were always kind of happy when he finally ran off with the peanut in his cheek.

When I was in fifth grade I found a squirrel frozen in a snow bank on my way to school one morning.  I don’t know how he got there, but he was board stiff and splayed out almost as flat as Popeye was after being run over by a steam roller.

I had a teacher at the time who fancied herself a frontier woman and told us stories about frontier life. She also said she was a taxidermist and had stuffed all kinds of animals, so I brought my frozen squirrel to her.  After some prodding from the entire class, she said she would stuff it for me.

 I waited several weeks, all the while imagining my squirrel sitting on a shelf in my room and wondering if I’d be able to put a peanut in his paws so he’d look alive. Meanwhile the teacher told us how the Indians tanned hides and how my squirrel probably would have been a hat on the frontier. We even learned a new word: Pliable.

Finally she brought my squirrel back in a paper bag, but when I pulled him out he looked worse than he had when he went in! Not only was he still all splayed out but was almost as flat, and had a line of thread up his stomach.  His body was all lumpy like he was full of walnuts, but worst of all was the white cottony stuff where his eyes should have been. He was a zombie squirrel!

Girls squealed and boys turned away; we sure didn’t want anything to do with a squirrel that looked like that! The teacher told us she didn’t have any glass squirrel eyes, but too late-we were just plain traumatized. Gosh, didn’t she even know what a squirrel looked like?

We found out that our teacher was no taxidermist that morning and we were pretty sure that she wasn’t any old frontier woman either. We were glad we’d be moving on to the sixth grade soon, let me tell you.

As I write this I realize that maybe I’m better off not having squirrels in my yard-I’m lucky to still have lips. I’m also surprised that I never caught rabies or the mange. What was I thinking?


                                  Squirrel Photo © 2011 by Keven Law

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 Apparently more education regarding poisonous plants is needed; each year there are over 63,000 calls to poison centers from people who have ingested plants, and 80% of those calls involve children. Less than 20% require medical intervention but of those some could experience terrible sickness, or even death.

In 1992 two brothers went searching the woods of Maine for American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius.) After finding what they thought was ginseng, they ate part of the root. The younger brother became violently ill within 30 minutes and died in an emergency room less than 3 hours later. The older brother suffered through seizures and delirium, but lived. The brothers were 23 and 39 years old-old enough to know better than to eat unidentified plant roots. The root they had eaten was that of the water hemlock (Cicuta maculata.)

Water hemlock is in the Carrot family (Apiaceae) and the root, which reportedly “smells delicious,” like a parsnip, is often mistaken for a wild carrot or parsnip. The smooth stems can be green, purple, or green with purple spots or streaks. The lower stems are hollow and the white flower clusters, called umbels, are made up of small 1/8″ flowers with 5 petals and 5 stamens. They resemble Queen Anne’s lace, which is in the same family. The plant grows in moist places; usually near streams and ponds, and blooms in July and August.

Water hemlock is closely related to poison hemlock, which grows in the western part of the U.S. and is generally believed to be the poison that Socrates drank. Water hemlock is every bit as deadly and is listed by the USDA as the most violently toxic plant known in North America. A single bite of the root can lead to an agonizing death.

To a child the hollow stems would seem an excellent pea shooter, and this is why parents would be wise to study this plant and know it well. There are many thousands of pages of information about it online, but a field guide is still a good investment.  All parts of this plant are extremely poisonous and anyone accidentally ingesting it should be taken to an emergency room immediately along with the part of the plant that was eaten, if possible.

This native plant is not rare; the pictures shown here were taken just feet from my office door. If you think you have found water hemlock on or near your property the best thing to do is leave it alone. Since the poisonous sap can be absorbed through the skin, it shouldn’t be touched unless exposed skin is covered and eye protection is worn. The likelihood of digging up the entire root is slim and the attempt dangerous, so call your local extension service for advice rather than trying to eradicate it yourself. In New Hampshire, that number is 1-877-398-4769. Use answers@unh.edu to reach them by email. Remember: Never eat any plant you aren’t absolutely sure of and teach children to never put any part of any plant in their mouth unless an adult is present.

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In medieval England when a peasant tenant farmer needed a trellis for his cottage garden he didn’t go out and buy one; he made it with materials gathered from the surrounding fields and forests.  There is no reason we can’t do the same thing today, I thought as I pondered the perfect spot for a trellis in my garden.  So, into the forest I went to cut saplings.

The photo to the left shows what I came back with-a few stout maple saplings about 8 feet long. What I wanted to build was essentially a ladder. I chose the two biggest saplings for the vertical pieces, and then cut the smaller saplings into short pieces to use as the rungs of the ladder.  In addition to the vertical and horizontal elements, I also used more pieces from the smaller saplings for angular cross bracing.

I wasn’t entirely true to the medieval cottage garden, though; I drilled pilot holes through the cross braces and rungs with a power drill and then used wood screws to put it all together. I could have used strong cord or wire to fasten all the pieces together, but I was feeling that life was too short for such a project. I also reasoned that, once the Sweet Autumn Clematis (Clematis paniculata ) that I planted on it grew to full size, most of the trellis wouldn’t be seen anyhow.

The photo at right shows the finished trellis with the Clematis already climbing it. I like the way the uprights bow out slightly at the top and how the “rungs” and cross braces are different lengths. It looks simple, rustic, and low-tech, which is exactly the effect I wanted against the high tech, manufactured siding of my tool shed. Because of the limited space available it is also narrow–only 18 inches at its widest point.

If you find yourself needing a trellis, why not build one? If you don’t own a forest where you can cut saplings, try the brush pile at the local landfill or ask a local tree service to save a few for you. I’m sure they would happily provide them at little or no cost. A trellis like this is simple and quick to build and can be built to suit the available space. If you ask me, it also looks much more fitting in an informal, natural setting than something machine made.

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I’ve recently been planning a path from my house to my tool shed, and that made think about the mistakes I’ve seen people make when building paths. The most common mistake is making paths too narrow; two people should be able to pass without bumping into each other or having to jump off the path into the grass.  Four feet is the minimum width for a path that is used daily, but six feet is better.  A garden path that sees only occasional use should be at least three feet wide to easily accommodate a wheelbarrow or garden cart.  

A simple row of stepping stones is fine for very infrequent use. This type of path has been used for centuries to keep feet from getting muddy, but today is used more for its simple rustic appeal than utility.

Another common mistake is a curving a path with no obvious reason for the curves. Our natural inclination is to walk in a straight line from point A to B, so the reason for walking the extra distance on a winding path should always be apparent. A flower bed, a decorative boulder or bird bath, a bench, a tree or specimen shrub; any of these placed on an inside arc of a path will define the reason for the curve. Large shrubs or dwarf trees can also be used along a curving path to hide what is beyond them, which compels travelers forward to see what lies up ahead.

Uneven field or flag stones are very hard to completely clear of snow so only smooth, level materials such as brick, concrete pavers, or poured concrete should be used on paths that see winter use. Large pieces of granite or bluestone also work well when pieces with non slip surfaces are used.  A six to ten foot wide strip of lawn with garden beds on either side makes a dramatic, more formal garden path that can also be cleared of snow if required. If a path is shoveled or snow blown loose materials shouldn’t be used or they will end up all over the surrounding landscape. For paths that aren’t shoveled, mulch, gravel, or any other loose material will work well provided it isn’t so soft that a loaded wheelbarrow or cart sinks, rather than rolls.

Finally, a garden path should always lead somewhere. This might seem obvious but I’ve walked garden paths that ended in space, with no apparent reason for me to have followed them. Travelers should always be rewarded at the end of a path or they will feel cheated. A hidden view, a place to sit, a wildflower garden, a meadow, a pond or stream, a patio; there has to be a reason for traveling to the end. Even if a path simply circles the garden and ends where it began there is a reason for walking it.

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Tucked away in the southwest corner of New Hampshire in the town of Fitzwilliam is a National natural landmark known as Rhododendron State Park.

The park is home to the largest grove of Rhododendron maximum, or giant rhododendron, in northern New England. Though native in moist woodlands from Maine to Georgia, It is rare to find such a large stand of these shrubs in New England. Also known as rosebay and great laurel, they are far more common in more southern states. Books explain that “though they normally reach a maximum height of 15 feet, they may become tree like.”

In Rhododendron State Park they have indeed become tree like, and you may feel a bit small as you wander through and under these giant plants. Visitors may find that the common landscape shrubs they are used to never seem the same again. On my first visit years ago, I was amazed by the size of them.

Rhododendron maximum is also prized for its late flowering habit; in mid July the fragrant pink and white blossoms can be found throughout the 16 acre grove. A 0.6 mile-long, wheelchair accessible trail meanders around and through the grove and allows visitors close up access to these beauties.

There are also nature and wildflower trails with native wildflowers planted and maintained by the Fitzwilliam garden club. Wildflowers bloom throughout the 2,723-acre park from early April into October. Another trail leads to Little Monadnock Mountain, which has excellent views of Mt. Monadnock and the surrounding countryside.

At the park entrance is a 200 year old farm house known as the Old Patch Place, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. The house boasts a colonial Herb Garden containing the medicinal, culinary and household herbs that would have been used 200 years ago. Common names, Latin names, the part of the plant used, and what it was used for are noted.

Rhododendron State Park is open all year during the daytime but isn’t maintained in winter. During the summer months from May through October, you may find a State Park Ranger at the park. He is there to answer questions and to collect the $3.00 per visitor admission fee. Children and seniors are admitted for free.  Pets must be on a leash and are not permitted on the wild flower trail or other nature trails, but can be taken up Little Mt. Monadnock. Just follow the instructions on the many signs and maps found throughout the park. The best time to see these spectacular rhododendrons in full bloom is mid July.

Remember, the park is for the enjoyment of us all, so please don’t pick any of the flowers, and if you carry it in, please carry it out.

Rhododendron State Park is on Route 119W in Fitzwilliam. From Rte. 119 between Fitzwilliam and Richmond, take Rhododendron Road and follow signs to the park. Phone: 603-532-8862 (at Monadnock State Park)



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Well, the goldenrod is blooming and that usually signals that time of year when people who know nothing about the plant blame it for their allergy symptoms.

According to the Mayo Clinic “Hay fever, also called allergic rhinitis, is caused by an allergic response to outdoor or indoor allergens, such as pollen, dust mites or pet dander.”

Pollen grains that cause hay fever symptoms are very small and dust like and carried by the wind. The pollen grains of goldenrod are very large, sticky, and comparatively heavy and can only be carried by insects. Even if you put your nose directly into a goldenrod blossom, it is doubtful that you would inhale any pollen.  

Ragweed (in the photo at right) and many grasses, on the other hand, are wind pollinated and release their pollen at about the same time that goldenrod blooms. These plants aren’t as showy as goldenrod however, so they escape notice. People focus their anger on what they see rather than fact, and some refuse to accept the truth even when it’s right in front of them.

One day a lady in front of me at a checkout began to sneeze. “Damn goldenrod,” she sniffled as she dug through her purse for a tissue. When I told her it wasn’t goldenrod but ragweed that was causing her allergies, she turned on her heel and told me that I didn’t know what I was talking about. “I’ve had hay fever for years! Don’t you think I know what causes it? Just look at the goldenrod everywhere!”  She was obviously quite happy with herself for setting this dolt straight.

With any luck she’s reading this and might pick up a book or go online and do a little research about ragweed and goldenrod pollen. I would have invited her over for afternoon tea and scones and tried to mitigate her misguided malevolence toward goldenrod but I grow it in my garden (even though I have hay fever), and she probably wouldn’t have been amused.

This year if your eyes start to water and your nose starts to itch, between sneezes please focus the blame on ragweed where it belongs, and not on goldenrod.  This beautiful flower has been maligned for far too long.

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture has put this plant near the top of its Federal Noxious Weed list. Officials in Washington are asking residents to be on the lookout for it so they can eradicate it. In New York a hotline has been set up so residents can easily report sightings, and crews in several states are seeking it out and destroying it. To date it has been reported in Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington and Vermont.

The plant is the giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum), originally from central Asia. Since its discovery it has spread all over the world, because as a specimen plant it is a knockout.  White flowers nearly 3 feet in diameter bloom on top of stalks that can reach 15 feet tall. The tropical looking compound leaves grow 3-5 feet across and up to 9 feet long on purple spotted stalks. People naturally want to touch it because it is so unusual, and that is what makes this plant is so dangerous.

The plant’s clear, watery sap works with moisture and sunlight in a reaction called phytophotodermatitis. People coming into contact with the sap develop large, painful blisters that resemble severe sunburn. Some have had to be hospitalized for intravenous antibiotics and cortisone injections and have taken a month or more to heal. Once the blisters heal, scars resembling cigarette burns remain. Children who have used the hollow stems as pea shooters have developed painful blisters around their mouths, and others who have used them as telescopes have been permanently blinded by the burning sap.

Doug Cygan, Invasive Species Coordinator with the NH State Department of Agriculture says, “It’s by far the worst plant pest when it comes to human health.” In New Hampshire, state officials have begun surveying and mapping sites where giant hogweed grows. So far it has been found in Grafton, Sullivan and Rockingham Counties, with unconfirmed reports of four injuries from the sap.

Officials warn those who think they’ve found a giant hogweed plant to stay away from it, keep pets and livestock from grazing on it, and make sure children and pets don’t play around it. There are reports of people getting burned by playing with cats and dogs who’ve gotten the sap on their fur.

NH residents who suspect they have found giant hogweed should call the Cooperative Extension’s Family, Home & Garden Education Center’s Info Line at 1-877-398-4769, Monday-Friday, 9 AM -2 PM, prepared to describe the plant and its location. All parts of the plant contain toxic sap, and it is recommended that people do not touch the plant while trying to identify it. Instead, wait for confirmation from a state inspector. For more information and photos, click here.

Resources include the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension Service, the State of New York Department of Environmental Conservation, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

NOTE: I’m getting asked repeatedly where folks should report their giant hogweed sightings. It’s important that you contact the extension service or department of agriculture in your state.  To find that information simply go to Google or any other search engine and type “Reporting giant hogweed in XXXXXXXX” where XXXXXXXX is the name of your state. Once you do this you’ll find a wealth of information, including photos and how to identify this plant. More often than not I’m told, what people are seeing is cow parsnip or another look alike. Please do your homework and try your best to make an accurate identification before contacting the authorities in your state.

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Working in the garden after a rain should always be avoided to both reduce the spread of disease and lessen soil damage.

Wet soil is easily compacted. Compaction squeezes air pockets from the soil and destroys the natural structure so water, nutrients and roots can no longer move freely through it. Once compacted, it is harder for soil to absorb water and nutrients, and once it does become saturated it takes longer to dry out. Adding organic matter to compacted soil is the only way to restore it.

Fungal diseases build up quickly in wet weather and are easily spread by human contact. Bacterial canker of tomatoes, for instance, can be spread by handling wet plants.  Bacterial blight can travel among wet bean plants in the same way. Many other vegetable fungal diseases are easily spread through human contact, so if you must handle a wet plant always wash thoroughly before touching another.

Smokers should also wash their hands before handling plants to prevent tobacco mosaic. While not caused by cigarette smoke, the disease is more easily spread among wet plants by smokers because dried tobacco in cigarettes and cigars can carry the virus. Once a plant has tobacco mosaic, there is no cure.

Ornamentals are also at risk in wet weather. Black spot on roses and gray mold and fungal leaf spot on other ornamentals can all be spread by humans working with wet plants. Ground cover diseases such as volutella stem blight of Pachysandra and phoma stem blight of Vinca may also be spread by handling wet plants.

One of the best ways to harm a lawn is to mow it when it is soaking wet, because any fungal diseases that may be present can be spread throughout the lawn. Mowing wet grass can also compact the soil, and turf is easily torn when the soil is wet. There are times when there is no other choice, but as a general rule mowing a wet lawn should be avoided.

After a rain, just imagine a KEEP OUT sign on your garden and do so until it dries out.

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It’s probably fair to say that when most New Englanders think of Deerfield, Massachusetts they think of Historic Deerfield or the scented candles at Yankee Candle. Though each of these certainly makes a trip to Deerfield worthwhile, there is something else in Deerfield that many have never heard of, and that is the Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory and Gardens.

Magic Wings should be a must see, especially for parents of children who are already bored even though school let out just two weeks ago. The main attraction is of course, the butterflies. Four thousand of them, both native and tropical, fly freely in an eight thousand square foot conservatory. If you stand very still butterflies may land on your shoulder, and that should delight any child. The conservatory also houses plants that attract butterflies, a pond full of Japanese Koi, and even a waterfall.

Magic Wings also has a restaurant, outdoor gardens where plants that attract butterflies grow, a picnic area, and a gift shop. A seasonal garden shop sells annuals and perennials that attract butterflies, butterfly feeders, and garden related gifts. The site can be used for weddings, children’s birthday parties, and meetings, with advance notice. To visit their website and learn more about this fascinating place, just click here.

 All butterfly photos were taken by my daughter Amanda on her trip to Magic Wings.

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