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Archive for the ‘How To’ Category

Over the nearly nine years I’ve been doing this blog the question I’ve been asked more than any other is “How do you find these things?” So this post will be about how I find them; I’ll tell you all the secrets, starting with the jelly baby mushrooms above. Do you see how small they are? They’re growing in an acorn cap. The first time I saw them I was feeling winded and when I sat on a rock to rest I looked down and there was a tiny clump of jelly babies, Just like this one. That day a side of nature that  I never knew existed was revealed and from then on I started seeing smaller and smaller things everywhere I went. 

You have to learn to see small by seeking out small things and training your eyes, and your brain somewhat, to see them. It also helps to know your subject. For instance I know that slime molds like the many headed slime mold above appear most often in summer when it’s hot and humid, and usually a day or two after a good rain. They don’t like sunshine so they’re almost always found in the shade. I’ve learned all of this from the slime molds themselves; by finding one and, not knowing what it was, looking it up to find out. I’ve learned most of what I know about nature in much the same way. If you want to truly study nature you have to be willing to do the legwork and research what you see.

Another secret of nature study is walking slowly. Find yourself a toddler, maybe a grandchild or a friend with one, or maybe you’re lucky enough to have one yourself. No older than two years though; they start to run after that and they’re hard to keep up with. Anyhow, watch a two year old on a trail and see how slowly they walk. See how they wander from thing to thing. They do that because everything is new and they need to see and experience it. You need to be the same way to study nature; become a toddler. Slowly cross and crisscross your line of progress. See, rather than look. Why is that group of leaves humped up higher than all the others? Is there something under them making them do that? Move them and see. You might find some beautiful orange mycena mushrooms like these under them.

So you need to train yourself to see small, to toddle and think like a toddler, and then you need to know your subject. All that comes together in something like this female American hazelnut blossom. I first saw them when I had toddled over to a bush to see the hanging male catkins, which are very beautiful, and out of the corner of my eye I saw a flash of red.

But all I could see was a flash of color because female hazelnut blossoms are almost microscopic. That’s a paperclip behind these blossoms. Even with eye problems I can find them though, because I know they’re tiny. I know they bloom in mid-April and I know they’re red and I know what shape the buds they grow out of are. All I need do is find one and the camera does the rest, allowing me to see its Lilliputian beauty.

That’s how I start the growing season each spring; by re-training my eyes to see small again. Most of what I see in winter is big so I need to get used to small again. Spring beauties like those above are as small as an aspirin, so they’re a good subject to start with. They’re also very beautiful and a forest floor carpeted with them is something you don’t soon forget.

Sometimes I’ll see something like this larch flower in a book or on another blog and I’ll want to see it in person. That’s what happened when I first found one, and I was surprised by how small they were. This is another example of my being able to only see a flash of color and then having to see with a camera. They’re just too small for me to see with my eyes but they’re beautiful and worth the extra effort it takes to get a photo of them.

I spend a lot of time looking at tree branches, especially in spring when the buds break. I’ve learned what time of month each tree usually blossoms and I make sure I’m there to see it happen. This photo shows male red maple flowers. Each flower cluster is full of pollen and the wind will be sure the pollen finds the female blossoms. When you see tulips and magnolias blooming it’s time to look at red maples. One of the extraordinary things about these blossoms was their scent. I smelled them long before I saw them.

Lichens aren’t easy to identify but there are easy to find because they grow virtually everywhere; on soil, on trees, on stone, even on buildings. But most are quite small, so walking slowly and looking closely are what it takes to find them. This mealy firedot lichen was growing on wet stone and that’s why the background looks like it does. You could spend a lifetime studying just lichens alone but it would be worth it; many are very beautiful.

Countless insects make galls for their young to grow in and the size and shape of them is beyond my ability to show or explain, so I’ll just say that I always make a point of looking for them because they’re endlessly fascinating, and you can match the gall to the insect with a little research. This one looked like a tiny fist coming up out of a leaf. Something else I like about them is that you don’t have to kneel down to see them. That isn’t getting any easier as time goes on. 

When young the female spore capsule (sporangium) of juniper haircap moss is covered by a cap called a calyptra, which protects the spore capsule and the spores within. It is very hairy, and this is what gives this moss part of its common name. Eventually, as the capsule ages it moves from a semi vertical to a more horizontal position before the calyptra falls off.  The spore capsule continues to ripen and when the time is right it will open and release the spores. When it’s time to release the spores the end cap (operculum) of the now reddish brown, 4 cornered but not square spore capsule will fall off and the spores will be borne on the wind. I learned all of that by studying the moss and reading about what I saw going on, and you can too. And you can do it with virtually anything you find in nature. To me, that is exciting.

A good memory isn’t strictly necessary for nature study but it can come in handy if you wish to see a plant in all stages of its life cycle. I knew where some rare dwarf ginseng plants grew in this area and I knew when they blossomed but I had never seen their seedpods, so I had to remember to go back to see what you see here. It might not look like much but it’s a rare sight and I doubt more than just a few have seen it. I often can’t remember my own phone number or where I parked my car but I can lead you right to the exact spot where this plant grows, so I seem to have two memories; one for every day and one for just nature. The one for nature works much better than the every day one.

Develop an eye for beauty. Give yourself time to simply stand and look, and before long you’ll find that you don’t just see beauty, you feel it as well, all through your being. This is just tree pollen on water; something I’ve seen a thousand times, but not like this. On this day it was different; it usually looks like dust on the surface but this pollen had formed strings that rode on the current. I wasn’t looking for it; I just happened upon it, and that shows that a lot of what you see on this blog is just dumb luck. But I wouldn’t happen upon it if I wasn’t out there. That’s another secret; you have to be out there to see it. You’ll never see it by staring at a phone or television.

This is another rarity that I just happened upon; a mushroom releasing its spores. Mushroom spores are carried by the wind so it is unusual to see them dropping to the forest floor like they have in this photo. I’ve only seen this happen three times and twice it was on a still, hot, humid day. Once it was on a cooler but still humid day, without a hint of a breeze to blow the spores away. This is why it’s so important to walk slowly and look carefully. You could easily pass this without seeing it.

Something else that is rare to see is a mushroom with another fungus feeding on it, like this bolete with a mycoparasite called Syzygites megalocarpus growing on its cap. A mycoparasite is essentially a fungus that feeds on other fungi. This one has been found on over 65 species of mushroom. It can appear overnight if heat and humidity levels are just right, and that’s exactly what this one did. You can’t plan to see something like this, you simply have to be there when it happens.

Do you know how many puddles there are with ice on them in winter? I don’t either, but I do take the time to look at them and I almost always see something interesting when I do. I’ve never seen another one like this.

Sometimes if you just sit quietly unusual things will happen. I was on my hands and knees looking at something one day and I looked up and there was a fly, sitting on a leaf. I slowly brought my camera up and this is the result. By the way, much of what I see comes about because I spend a lot of time on my hands and knees. If you want to see the very small, you have to. And before I get back on my feet I always try to look around to see if there’s anything interesting that I’ve missed.

I was crawling around the forest floor looking for I don’t remember what one day and saw something jump right in front of me. It was a little spring peeper. It sat for a minute and let me take a few photos and then hopped off. Another secret of nature study is to expect the unexpected. If you want to document what you see always have your camera ready. I have one around my neck, one on my belt and another in my pocket, and I still miss a lot.

I was in a meadow in Walpole climbing the High Blue trail when I saw a blackish something moving through the grass on the other side. Apparently it saw me because it turned and came straight for me. When it got close I could see that it was a cute porcupine. I thought it must have poor eyesight and would run away when it got close enough but then it did something I never would have  expected; it came up to me and sat right at my feet. I took quite a few photos and then walked on after telling it goodbye. I still wonder what it was all about and what the animal might have wanted. I’ve never forgotten how we seemed to know one another. It’s another example of why you have to expect the unexpected in nature study. You just never know.

Sometimes all you need to do is look up. When was the last time you saw mare’s tails in the sky? There’s a lot of beauty out there for you to see, and you don’t really have to study anything.

So, what you’ve read here isn’t the only way to study nature. It’s simply my way; what I’ve learned by doing. I had no one to guide me, so this is what and how I’ve learned on my own. I thought that it might help you in your own study of nature, or you might find your own way. It doesn’t matter as long as you’re out there having fun and enjoying this beautiful world we live in. I’ll leave you with a simple summary that I hope will help:

  1. To see small think small. There is an entire tiny world right there in plain sight but there’s a good chance you haven’t seen it. Nothing is hidden from the person who truly sees.

  2. Don’t just look, see; and not just with your eyes. Use all your senses. I’ve smelled certain plants and fungi before I’ve seen them many times. I also feel almost everything I find.

  3. Walk at a toddlers pace. Cross and crisscross your path.

  4. Know your subject. You probably won’t find what you hope to unless you know when and where it grows, or its habits. When you see something you’ve never seen if you want to know more about it research it.

  5. Be interested in everything. If you’re convinced that you’ve seen it all then you’ll see nothing new. Run your eye down a branch. Roll over a log. Study the ice on a puddle.

  6. Expect the unexpected. I’ve heard trees fall in the forest but I’ve never seen it happen. Tomorrow may be the day.

  7. Develop an eye for beauty; it’s truly everywhere you look. Allow yourself to see and feel it. Appreciate it and be grateful for it and before long you too will see it everywhere you go.

  8. Let nature lead. Nature will teach you far more than you’ve ever imagined. It will also heal you if you let it, but none of this can happen if you spend all your time indoors.

  9. None of the things you’ve read here are really secrets. Nature is there for everyone and you can study it and take pleasure in it just as easily as I can.

  10. Have fun and enjoy nature and you’ll be surprised how quickly your cares melt away. Problems that once might have seemed insurmountable will suddenly seem much easier to solve.

To look at any thing,
If you would know that thing,
You must look at it long. 
~John Moffitt

Thanks for stopping in.

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I don’t know why I get an itch to start looking at buds at this time of year but I always have. Maybe it makes me think of spring. Buds do give clues that the ground has thawed by taking up water and swelling, and if you watch a bud every other day or so in spring you can see it happen. I usually watch lilac buds, but nothing says spring like the sugar maple buds (Acer saccharum) in the above photo. Sugar maples have large, pointed, very scaly terminal buds flanked by smaller lateral buds on either side. The lateral buds are usually smaller than the terminal bud. Sugar maple twigs and buds are brown rather than red like silver or red maples and the buds have several scales. Buds with many scales that overlap like shingles are called imbricate buds. A gummy resin fills the spaces between the scales and makes the bud waterproof. This is especially important in cold climates because water freezing inside the bud scales would destroy the bud.

For those who can’t see or don’t want to look at small buds like those on sugar maples fortunately there are big buds on plants like rhododendron. It also has imbricate buds that are large enough to see without magnification. Bud scales are modified leaves that cover and protect the bud through winter. Some buds can have several, some have two, some have just one scale called a cap, and some buds are naked, with none at all.

You can see the gummy resin that glues some bud scales together on this gray birch (Betula populifolia) bud. Ruffed grouse will eat both the buds and catkins and pine siskins and black-capped chickadees eat the seeds of gray birch. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers feed on the sap and I’ve seen beavers take an entire clump of gray birch overnight, so they must be really tasty. Deer also browse on the twigs in winter.

Some of the smallest buds I know belong to hawthorns (Crataegus) and the cherry red hawthorn bud in the above photo could easily hide behind a pea. There are over 220 species of hawthorn in North America, with at least one native to every state and Canadian province. In New Hampshire we have 17 species, so the chances of my identifying this example are slim to none. The closest I can come is Gray’s hawthorn (Crataegus flabellata.) I know the tree in the photo well so I know that its blossoms will be white. Hawthorn berries are called haws and are said to have medicinal value. Native Americans mixed the dried haws and other fruits with dried venison and fat to make pemmican.  The dried flowers, leaves, and haws can be used to make a tea to soothe sore throats, and hawthorn also shows promise for treating heart disease.

If you can’t identify a hawthorn by its buds then its thorns will help. On this example they were about 2 inches long and just as sharp as they look. Native Americans made fences around their settlements with brambles and thorny branches like those from hawthorns. They also made very sharp awls and fish hooks from hawthorn thorns.

The lilac buds (Syringa vulgaris) in the above photo are another good example of imbricate buds. Lilac buds are very red and in spring once the plant begins taking up water again they can swell quickly enough to notice, if they’re regularly watched. I’ve watched lilac buds in spring since I was just a small boy and it has always been one of my favorite things to do in the spring. They aren’t swelling yet but it won’t be long before spring is here.

Highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) buds are also imbricate buds, and also very red. It’s interesting that almost everything about the blueberry is red except for its berry. The new twigs are red, the bud scales are red, and the fall foliage is very red.

A bud I most look forward to seeing open is the beech (Fagus grandifolia.) There are beautiful silvery downy edges on the new laves that only last for a day or two, so I watch beech trees closely starting in May. Botanically beech buds are described as “narrow conical, highly imbricate, and sharply pointed.” In May they are one of the most beautiful things in the forest.

Buds with just two (sometimes three) scales are called valvate. The scales meet but do not overlap. This Cornelian cherry bud is a great example of a valvate bud. In the spring when the plant begins to take up water through its roots the buds swell and the scales part to let the bud grow. Some bud scales are hairy and some are covered with sticky resin that further protects the bud. Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) is an ornamental flowering shrub related to dogwoods. It blooms in early spring (in March) with clusters of blossoms that have small, bright yellow bracts. It has a long history with mankind; its sour red fruit has been eaten for over 7000 years, and the Persians and ancient Romans knew it well.

Magnolia flower buds in botanical terms are “densely pubescent, single-scaled, terminal flower buds.” The hairy single scale is called a cap and it will fall off only when the bud inside has swollen to the point of blossoming.

Sycamore bud scales (Platanus occidentalis) are also made of a single brown cap which will fall off to reveal the bud only when the weather warms. When buds are covered by a single bud scale they are encircled completely by a bud scale scar when the scale falls off.

The mountain ash bud (Sorbus americana) in this photo looks like it has a single cap like bud scale but it actually has several overlapping scales which are quite sticky. It looks like a squirrel might have been nibbling at this one.

Red maple flower buds (Acer rubrum) are small and round or oval with short stalks and 4 pairs of bud scales. The bud scales are often purple and / or tomato red. They have a fine fringe of pale hairs on their margins. Red maples can be tapped and syrup made from their sap but the sap gatherers have to watch the trees carefully, because the sap can become bitter when the tree flowers. Seeing the hillsides awash in a red haze from hundreds of thousands of red maple flowers is a treat that I always look forward to. Unfortunately I’ve found that it’s almost impossible to capture that beauty with a camera.

Box elder buds (Acer negundo) and young twigs are often a beautiful blue or purple color due to their being pruinose. Pruinose means a surface is covered in white, powdery, waxy granules that reflect light in ways that often make the surface they are on appear blue. Certain grapes, plums, and blueberries are pruinose fruits. Certain lichens like the beautiful smoky eye boulder lichen have fruiting bodies (Apothecia) that are often pruinose.

Staghorn sumacs (Rhus typhina) have no bud scales at all, so their naked buds are hairy and the hairs protect the bud. Another name for staghorn sumac is velvet tree, and that’s exactly what its branches feel like. Native Americans made a drink from this tree’s berries that tasted just like lemonade, and grinding the berries produces a purple colored, lemon flavored spice.

Hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides) is another native shrub with naked buds. This photo shows that the flower bud in the center and the surrounding leaf buds are clothed more in wool than hair, but there are no scales for protection. Still, they come through the coldest winters and still bloom beautifully each spring.

Sometimes there is no flower bud at the end of a hobblebush branch so the leaf buds are able to clasp tightly together, and they always remind me of praying hands. I’m not sure what caused the dark spots on these examples. It’s something I’ve never seen before.

The chubby little green and purple buds of red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) are some of my favorites, but I don’t see them often. I find that being able to identify trees and shrubs when they don’t have leaves adds another layer to the enjoyment of nature study, and I hope readers will try to learn a few. If you are interested in studying tree and shrub buds, start with one in your own yard that you are sure of like a maple tree, and then branch out to those you don’t know well. The following information might be helpful:

A bud scale is made up of modified leaves or stipules that cover and protect the bud in winter. Usually the number of bud scales surrounding a bud will help identify a tree or shrub.

Imbricate bud: A bud with numerous scales that overlap each other like shingles.
Valvate bud: A bud with two or three scales that do not overlap.
Caplike bud: A bud with a single scale that comes off in the spring.
Naked bud: A bud with no scales.

Winter is on my head, but eternal spring is in my heart. ~Victor Hugo

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I have a friend who is against forcing bulbs because, she says, “it isn’t natural.” Forcing simply means that you are exposing bulbs to warmth sooner than if they were growing outside, so I’m not sure it could be considered unnatural either. Most spring flowering bulbs, except paper white narcissus which don’t need a cold period, can be forced, including the smaller grape hyacinth, crocus, and scilla.

Forcing bulbs is easy; simply pot up your favorite bulbs in soilless potting mix, water them well and then put them in a cold, but not freezing, place for at least 15 weeks.  Cool soil stimulates root growth, which continues until it gets quite cold. Warmth after the cool period stimulates top growth and flowers.

Using the correct soil is probably the most important part of forcing bulbs because they will not stand soggy soil. A soilless potting mix like pro mix is an excellent choice, or you can make your own with 2 parts compost, 2 parts sphagnum peat moss, 1 part vermiculite and 1 part perlite. Personally I find using pre mixed easier.

Fill the pot half full of mix, place the bulbs in it and finish filling around them.  Do not compact the potting mix. Give them a good soaking to settle the mix and then add more if necessary.  When finished the tip of the bulb should be just peeking out of the potting mix. Tulip bulbs should have their flat side toward the pot, because this is where the first leave will form. Label the bulbs clearly!

After potting I dig a trench just deep enough to sink the pots to the top of their rims and then pack leaves or straw loosely around the pots. Then I cover the pots and trench with a foot deep mulch of leaves or straw. Finally I cover everything with plastic or a tarp so it doesn’t get wet and become a big frozen together mass. After 15 weeks I pull back the plastic and mulch, grab a pot of bulbs, bring them inside and water them, set them in a cool spot until I see top growth, and then set them in a bright window. 

You can also use an unheated shed, garage, crawlspace, or even a refrigerator. Many people put them in cold frames but the temperature can rise quickly on sunny winter days, so the top will have to be opened occasionally to keep the temperature at or below 45º F (7.2º C). Bulbs need cold but they shouldn’t freeze, so temperatures shouldn’t fall below 35 º F (1.6º C). Bulbs cooled in a trench should go in no later than November 15th for late February blooming. 

When bulbs have finished blooming put them in the coolest, sunniest spot available and continue watering until they can be planted outside. It may take up to 2 years for the bulbs to produce large blooms again after they have been forced.

 Tulip Potting Photo by Iowa State University Extension service

 

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When you think of the holidays do you think of the aroma of baking apple pies? If so make some pomander balls and have your house smell like you are baking pies every day, all year long.

Pomanders are essentially balls of fragrance. They have been used since the 13th century and were originally any fragrant substance enclosed in a cloth bag or metal ball. They could be as simple as a cloth bag of herbs or as elaborate as a pierced golden ball full of ambergris or musk. They were used to ward off offensive odors, of which there were many.  Though pomanders originated in the Arab world, the word pomander comes from the French pomme d’ambre.  Pomme means apple, and amber is from ambergris; a very fragrant substance found in the gut of the sperm whale.

Today pomander balls are usually fruit studded with cloves and rolled in spices. If made correctly pomanders will be very fragrant and last for years. I have always used oranges for pomanders but any citrus fruit, apples or pears will do. The fruit chosen should be firm with no soft spots. Once you have chosen your fruit, begin studding it with whole cloves as in the photo below.

Cloves are flower buds harvested from a tropical tree (Syzygium aromaticum) and dried. The word clove comes from the Latin clavus, which means nail. If you look closely you will see that a clove does indeed resemble a nail, with a shank and a head. The shank end is pushed into the fruit. Cloves are sharp and an hour or two of pushing them into fruit can make your thumb ache a bit, so you might want to use a thimble, glove, or masking tape for protection.  As you slowly cover the fruit with cloves the increasing aroma will be quite enjoyable. Try to cover the entire fruit in one sitting.  Hint: Cloves are much cheaper if bought in bulk. I bought just over 4 oz. for $4.99 and used about half that on this huge orange.

Once your piece of fruit is covered with cloves, mix one tablespoon each of fragrant spices. Traditionally cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and powdered orris root are used, but I also add allspice and a pinch or two of ground cloves. You can add your own favorite spice or make substitutions.

Orris root comes from the root of a variety of German (bearded) iris known as Iris pallida; the Dalmatian or Sweet iris. This iris is cultivated specifically for its root, which smells like violets and has fixative properties that “fix” other fragrances. It may be hard to find locally but it is easy to order online. Using it will mean your pomander’s fragrance will last many years, but if you choose not to use it you can simply roll your pomander in spices if the fragrance starts to fade.  

Put the spice mix in a bowl and roll your pomander in it, making sure you cover it completely with the spices until it looks like the photo below. (You may have to spoon the spices over the fruit)

 The spices help cure and preserve the fruit so that it won’t mold or spoil. Leave the pomander in the bowl of spices and roll it in them each day.  As the fruit cures it will shrink and lose weight. After anywhere from 3 weeks to 3 months depending on the size and type of fruit chosen, it will be fully cured and will have lost as much as half its original size. When it feels very light and sounds hollow when tapped it is fully cured.  2 or 3 pomanders can be placed together in a decorative bowl and used as a very old fashioned air freshener, or individual balls can be hung with ribbon. Small, light fruits hung at the end of ribbons make excellent, Victorian style ornaments for the Christmas tree.

Note:  This method of making pomander balls comes from the book Potpourri, Incense and Other Fragrant Concoctions by Ann Tucker Fettner, published in 1977. I’ve used this method for over 30 years without a problem. However, there are other methods found online that I question.

One for instance, says that pomanders don’t have to be rolled in spices. Spices are what preserve the fruit and if they aren’t used it will spoil and mold rather than cure, so I’m not sure how this works.

Another method says to put the pomander and spices in a paper bag, and I question this because of the need for good air circulation to prevent mold. The great fragrance to be had from pomanders while they cure would also be lost.

Another method says that sandalwood oil can be used in place of orris root. While I can’t say this isn’t true, it seems to me that the sandalwood oil would overpower the apple pie-like fragrance of the spices, defeating the purpose.

Other methods say to first poke holes in the fruit and then insert the cloves into the holes. While this may work, if the holes are made too big the cloves will simply fall out of them and you’ll be left with what looks like a dusty, shriveled up piece of fruit.  

In any case, no matter which method you choose, the object is to have some fun doing something that is perhaps new and different, so I hope you will give it a try.

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The big difference between paperwhite narcissus (Narcissus tazzeta or papyraceus) and any other daffodil is that paperwhites don’t need a cool period, which means that they can be easily grown indoors as soon as you buy them with no extra work.

These bulbs are native to the Mediterranean region and are hardy only in zones 8 through 11. Here in the northeast if we plant them outside we have to treat them as we would any other summer flowering bulb, like dahlias or gladiolus. Paperwhites are available as soon as tulips and other spring flowering bulbs appear. When buying them, buy enough for a lengthy succession of bloom so you’ll have flowers throughout the winter.

To grow paperwhites all you really need is water, sunlight, and something to keep them from tipping over. (They can get quite tall if they don’t get enough sun.) I use shallow glass bowls about 4 inches deep and big enough to hold 3 to 5 bulbs. You should use a bowl with no drainage holes that is deep enough to contain the roots. I usually use plain pebbles or marble chips to give the bulbs support, but colored glass beads, washed gravel, or even colored aquarium gravel will work.  Put about an inch of gravel in the bottom of the bowl and nestle the bulbs down into it so the bulb sides are touching. Then fill around the bulbs with more stones or gravel until only about 1/2 to 1/3 of the bulb tops are exposed. Finally, fill the bowl with enough water to cover just the base of the bulbs. Set them on a cool, sunny windowsill and in about a month your house will be filled with their sweet fragrance.

  • Once bulbs are watered they should never be allowed to dry out or they may not bloom.  Check water level every other day with a finger if not using a see through container.
  • Pot up new bulbs every 2 weeks for winter long blooming.
  • As soon as bulbs set buds move them out of direct sunlight and they will blossom longer.
  • If the plants get too tall and begin to flop over, for your second bowl of bulbs follow the above directions but after a day of allowing the bulbs to absorb water, pour out any remaining water in the bowl. Immediately replace the water with a mixture of 9 parts water to 1 part alcohol. This can be vodka, gin, tequila, whiskey, or rubbing alcohol. Water the bulbs with this mixture from then on.  Researchers at Cornell University have discovered that alcohol affects the height of paperwhites but still allows them to bloom as usual. Do not use beer or wine as they contain sugar.
  • Paperwhites can also be planted in potting soil. Plant so 1/2 to 1/3 of the bulb is exposed above the soil line and keep constantly moist.
  • People bothered by strong fragrances may be sensitive to paperwhites. They are very fragrant and just 3 bulbs will fill an entire house with fragrance. You might try growing just one to start with if you have questions.

Photo copyright University of Florida Extension Service

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When planting bulbs in the fall it’s easy to forget how their foliage will look in the spring after the flowers fade. Let’s face it-ripening bulb foliage is not pretty, but since photosynthesis is the way the bulb makes and stores enough energy to bloom again the following season it is important that the foliage isn’t removed. Bulb foliage also shouldn’t be tied into bunches or flattened down to the soil surface either, because doing so will impede the process.

Unless planted in a bed dedicated only to bulbs, ripening bulb foliage is best hidden among the plants in a perennial bed or behind ornamental grasses. The foliage of bulbs planted between and behind perennials that reach a foot or more in height will be visible only until the surrounding perennials or grasses grow taller later in spring. From then on it will blend in and be much less noticeable.

If bulbs are planted in a bulb-only bed, their ripening foliage can still be hidden by planting taller annuals among them. Since most annuals have shallow root systems the holes don’t have to be dug so deep that bulbs are disturbed.

Another method of hiding ripening bulb foliage is moving the bulbs and “heeling them in” in another location. This is labor intensive and requires accurate labeling of the bulbs so they don’t get confused.  A label that says “Red Tulips” won’t be much help when re-planting in the fall, so variety, height and blooming time should be noted.

To heel bulbs in first dig a trench about six inches deep and as wide in a sunny spot. With a spade or fork, carefully lift the bulbs from their current location, keeping the foliage intact, and replant them in the trench. When the bulb foliage is brown and pulls from the bulbs easily the bulbs can be dug up and dried, out of direct sunlight in a spot with good air circulation like a carport or porch. Once dry the bulbs should have all loose soil brushed from them before they are stored in a cool, dry place until fall planting. Any soft or damaged bulbs should be discarded. As I said-labor intensive!

Bulbs that are naturalized, which is a process in which handfuls of bulbs (usually daffodils) are tossed on the ground and then planted where they fall, also need time for foliage ripening, so naturalizing should be done only in areas that don’t have to be mowed until early summer.

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The cooler temperatures and more frequent rains of September mean mushrooms will be popping up all over. Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies (reproductive organs) of a fungus. Typically (though not always) they have stems, caps, and gills on the underside of the cap. Mushrooms are not plants and do not produce seeds. In the case of the gilled mushrooms, they produce spores on their gills. When the mushroom is ready to release its spores they fall from the gills to the soil surface where they appear as a powdery substance.

Mushroom spores can be white, brown, black, brownish purple, pink, yellow, off white and rarely red, but the color of the spores isn’t always the same color as the gills, and that’s where the fun of making spore prints comes in.

When the stem is broken from a mushroom and the cap is placed gill side down on a piece of paper, the spores fall onto the paper and make a spore print, which helps in identification. You never know what color the spores will be but most are white. I often start with black paper, but any dark color will do. Once the mushroom cap is on the paper I cover it with a small bowl to keep it moist. If it seems overly dry I sprinkle two or three drops of water on top of the cap to moisten it. This is important because a dry cap might not release its spores.  I leave it covered overnight and in the morning remove the bowl and carefully lift the mushroom cap straight up so as not to smudge the spore print. If everything has gone well, I see something like in the photo below. If a spore print isn’t visible the spores might be the same color as the paper or the cap might have dried out before I picked it. Or it could have already released all of its spores. In any case, I try again!

 

 Spore prints smudge easily before they’ve dried completely, so I let them dry covered for a day and then spray them with artist’s fixative (or hair spray). Fixative is used to keep charcoal and pastel drawings from smudging and can be found at any art supply store.  Then if I’m happy with the results I frame it, which transforms it into a very unusual art object.

 

 

 Note: Small children should always be closely supervised when working with any mushrooms gathered in the wild. Some, like the yellow Amanita muscaria in the photo at the top of the page, are extremely poisonous. It’s also a good idea to wash your hands after handling them and their spores.

 

 

 

 

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Why cast leaves in concrete? Well, why not? It’s fun, easy, and relatively inexpensive to do and when you are done you have a piece of garden art, a stepping stone for a path, or a small bird bath. You can use any large leaves like hosta, cabbage, rhubarb, burdock, or what have you. Some plants with huge leaves make dramatic castings and can be used as planters. They can even be painted to appear life like.

A friend told me about this a few months ago, so I thought I’d give it a try. The biggest expense is the bag of concrete, but that is less than $11.00 and you can make several castings with one bag. I use Quickcrete vinyl concrete patch because it dries fast and leaves a smooth finish. Some people also add coloring agents and fortifiers, but each extra item you add adds to the cost. The castings seem strong enough without concrete fortifier.

 

In addition to the concrete mix I used plastic wrap, something to mix in, something to stir with, rubber gloves, a dust mask, water, and a large pile of moist sand. Sand can also be bought in bags if necessary.

 

Here I’m using a hosta leaf. Since the ribs and veins are more prominent on leaf undersides, I put the leaf face up on the sand. To cast a leaf you need to think in reverse; if you want a bowl shape lay the leaf over a mound of sand. For an arched leaf casting, make a depression in the sand, and for a flat casting, level the sand.

 

Once I had the sand molded the way I wanted it, I removed the leaf and put plastic wrap over the sand. This keeps the sand out of the concrete and lets you finish the edges of the leaf.  The leaf should be face down on the plastic wrap before adding the concrete.

 

I mixed the concrete to a toothpaste or brownie mix consistency by adding water slowly so it didn’t become too soupy. Soupy mix will run off of the leaf. When I had the concrete mix at the correct consistency, I put some in the center of the leaf.

 

What is shown in this picture will be the underside of the finished casting. With my hand, I patted down and worked the concrete mix from the center of the leaf out toward the edges as shown. This is where the rubber gloves come in handy. The finished casting should be about 3/8 to 1/2 of an inch thick in the center and slightly thinner at the leaf edges. If it is a little thicker it will just take a little longer to dry. According to what I’ve read, the concrete on very large leaves should be up to about 1 inch thick.

If I wanted a casting you could hang, at this stage I would lay a loop of sturdy wire (like coat hanger wire) into the wet concrete and then cover it with more concrete. If leaves are bigger than 14 inches across it’s a good idea to reinforce them with wallboard tape or chicken wire at this stage so they don’t crack later on. Just lay the wall board tape or wire on top of the wet concrete and cover with more of the mix, smoothing as you go.

 

I gently pull the plastic wrap toward the leaf edges so the concrete mix doesn’t flow out beyond them. Peeking under the leaf as you pull the plastic wrap toward the center shows where the leaf edges are. This makes a nice clean edge. After I’m satisfied, I leave the casting just as it is shown for two days. If it’s supposed to rain, I cover it.

 

Once the concrete is dry, smooth surfaced leaves like hosta will peel away from the dry concrete easily. This picture shows the casting after about half of the leaf was peeled away. Hairy leaves like rhubarb or burdock may need to be scrubbed off with a wire brush after decomposing for a day or two. Some leaves might also stain the concrete slightly.

 

This is my first attempt at painting a concrete leaf that was cast earlier. It’s supposed to resemble a leaf from a green and white hosta variety known as “minuteman,” but for some reason this photo seems to have a bluish tint to it. Oh well-at least it shows what it is possible to do with leaf castings, and that’s the whole point. Next time I’ll use stiffer brushes and flat paint. This was done with foam brushes, which made getting sharp edges difficult. The satin paint also seems a little too shiny for my tastes.

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