The Yellow Farmhouse Garden

January 16, 2020

Snake plants rarely flower in Southeastern Michigan

Most of us are familiar with Mother-in-law’s tongue plant also called snake plant. It’s found in homes, offices, shops, workplaces and any other place that needs a tough and hardy indoor plant.

Until 2017 it was officially called Sansevieria trifasciata. Subsequent  scientific study has now found it to be a Dracaena species so it’s official name is now Dracaena trifasciata.

Its main task is to sit in one spot, often for years at a time, adding living greenery without causing any fuss or needing any special care.

Snake plants prefer low humidity which is easy to find in most heated buildings. They easily adapt to low light conditions and will just sit there minding their business without either growing or dying back. Under conditions like that, the best thing you can do for it is to  leave it alone, especially when it comes to watering. A widely spaced watering interval is much better than regular watering.


A mature snake plant can grow to over three feet tall before sending up a flower stalk.

A mature snake plant can grow to over three feet tall before sending up a flower stalk.


Dracaena trifasciata can help clean the air in your home or workspace. I remember back in the 1970’s reading about this plant. NASA was making plans for space travel and were looking for ways to improve air quality inside of spaceships during long voyages. They found out that snake plants not only provided some oxygen but were also very efficient at filtering airborne chemical pollutants.


PHOTO/caption: Drops of water oozing from plants is called “guttation”. It’s a natural process caused by the plant attempting to remove excess moisture. In this case the owner decided to help the flowering Sansevieria by giving it extra water.

PHOTO/caption: Drops of water oozing from plants is called “guttation”. It’s a natural process caused by the plant attempting to remove excess moisture. In this case the owner decided to help the flowering snake plant by giving it extra water.

Snake plants hardly ever produce flowers in our part of the world. I can’t remember the last time I saw one flowering, until this week. A few days ago someone sent me a photo of their snake plant with a flower stalk.

Only a small percentage of old, mature plants will produce flowers. When it happens, it’s a real treat to see. This is the time of year when it most likely happens.

Growing wild in their home in Africa, Dracaena trifasciata flower regularly and produce seeds, will this one? I’ll have to get back to you on that.

I’m not sure if you can actually encourage a Dracaena trifasciata to blossom but keeping your plant root bound in an undersized pot and keeping watering to a minimum may increase the odds of it happening.



January 9, 2020

Boxelder trees can be a refuge for wildlife

So far this winter has been relatively mild which is good for all kinds of wildlife including birds and small and large mammals. Milder temperatures means fewer calories are needed to stay alive.

There is no deep or ice-encrusted snow to keep wildlife from getting to their food sources such as nuts, seeds, fruits, grasses, etc.

During a severe winter, wildlife can rapidly use up the fat they gained through the summer and fall. They also have to work harder to get to winter food if it is covered by a deep blanket of snow or a layer of ice.

Fortunately, there is a common native tree  that helps wildlife make it through the winter by providing food and shelter. That is the humble boxelder tree.

Boxelder trees been disdained by landscapers and arborists so much and for so long that we forget they can contribute in a positive way to the local ecosystem.

There are few reasons why boxelder are scorned. First is because of their looks. Unlike many other species of trees that grow in symmetrical, predictable shapes, boxelders tend to grow asymmetrically, mainly due to the loss of branches. To me this gives each individual boxelder tree its own personality.

Unlike slow-growing hardwood trees like the mighty oaks or maples, boxelder’s wood is brittle and weak due to its fast growth habit. Weak wood means weak branches that frequently break off during winds, storms, heavy snow or, so it sometimes seems, for no reason at all..

A boxelder in someone’s yard means having more tree debris to clean up. Plus falling branches can cause damage If the tree is near a house, shed or other structure.

But the soft wood of boxelders is beneficial to birds and mammals. Those branches that break off often leave a spot for fungus to get a foothold and start decaying wood. Since the wood is so soft, it quickly decays leaving holes and nesting cavities. Larger branches and trunks of older trees can eventually become hollowed out and provide shelter for larger mammals and birds.

Since boxelder trees are a type of maple, their seeds look  much like maple tree seeds enclosed in little  “helicopters” called samaras.

Since boxelder trees are a type of maple, their seeds look much like maple tree seeds enclosed in little “helicopters” called samaras.

Boxelder trees are often called weedy trees because they are able to sprout up just about anywhere. For example, in urban areas they’re sometimes found growing against the walls and foundations of buildings. Female boxelders produce enormous amounts of seeds that are carried by the wind and dropped randomly.

The nutritious boxelder seeds hang on the tree through winter making them easy to find by critters during harsh winters.

Even though it is a native tree, you may not want to introduce boxelders onto your property due to their aggressive growth.

On the other hand, if you already have a boxelder growing on your property and it’s in an out of the way spot, consider letting it grow so it can continue its role in your local ecosystem. When bitter winters occur in the future, your boxelder might be the difference between life and death for some of your wildlife population.



December 19, 2019

Native calico asters stars of fall

A fall flowering favorite of mine is our native calico aster. It is found in all eastern US states and Canadian provinces.

Around our local area, I’m seeing more of these plants than usual. The relatively rainy growing season may have something to do with it since they prefer semi-damp environments. More frequent rain means that it will be more likely they will be able to establish themselves in spots where they wouldn’t be found in drier years.

In late summer and early fall, these asters produce a display of 5/8-inch diameter, white flowers with pale yellow centers. You often find them along hiking trails, roadsides and the edge of fields. In my yard they’re popping up around my wood chip pile, an old compost heap and other places that don’t get touched by the mower that often. They range in height from about a foot to over five feet tall depending on their location and how long they have been growing there. They are perennials.

Even though they are not known for their scent, I sometimes can detect a faint sweet smell from mine if I put my nose right up against the flowers.

Calico asters are a good source of late season nectar for pollinators. I’ve noticed many honeybees and other small pollinating insects on mine. As the season progresses, the flower centers change colors as they age adding hues of pink, blue or maroon here and there, giving it a “calico” appearance.


Look how the colors of the center of the flowers change.

Look how the colors of the center of the flowers change.

Calico asters can be confused with other similar-looking species. However, if you look closely, you’ll notice the plant has another distinguishing characteristic, its flowers grow from only one side of the stems.

Mammals such as deer and rabbits sometimes browse on the foliage. Some species of butterflies and moths do too.

The stems are strong enough to stay standing through much of the winter adding interesting contrast to otherwise empty expanses of white snow.

These likable flowers make a great addition to a wildflower garden. Plant breeders have worked with them and have come up with improved varieties that are more tame and will look at home in your main flower garden.



December 12, 2019

Ground pine, a festive native plant

We have an area on our property that we let grow wild. It provides shelter for wildlife, nesting sites and materials for birds, and a home to insects and other organisms. It is also a spot where many native plants have become re-established.

One of those plants, flowering right now in the middle of December, is the festive-looking “ground pine” sometimes called “princess pine”  (Lycopodium obscurum).

OK, it’s not actually flowering per se, but instead are sporulating by sending up reproductive stalks full of spores. It is amazing to me that a plant reproduces like that this time of year in Michigan.

Ground pine is a common name for a group of species of club moss. Their leaves strongly resemble miniature evergreen trees but they only grow to about six to eight inches tall.

Looking at this close up you can see how the leaves resemble an evergreen tree.

Looking at this close up you can see how the leaves resemble an evergreen tree.

While they don’t produce pine cones, the tops of their reproductive stalks vaguely remind you of a pine cone. I tapped a few of those stalks and each one released a small cloud of fresh spores.

 The  yellow reproductive structures contain a huge amount of spores for such a small plant

The yellow reproductive structures contain a huge amount of spores for such a small plant

Ground pine stays green all year round, further reinforcing its reputation as a mini evergreen tree.

Club moss are very attractive plants and because of that, many people in the past have tried to dig them up and move them to their own gardens. Many more plants were harvested for Christmas wreaths further reducing the native population. Even more plant populations were inadvertently destroyed by land developers and farmers. As a result, all species of club moss are protected by state law in Michigan.

If left undisturbed, club moss grows into an attractive stand of plant

If left undisturbed, club moss grows into an attractive stand of plants.

Several years ago we tried cutting a few shoots to make into Christmas decorations but they very quickly wilted into a dried mess. I suspect ours is a different species than the ones harvested in other areas of the country.

I’ve been watching our stands of ground pine for many years. Over that time they have expanded and now cover a fairly good sized area.

For plant lovers, it is a treat to find ground pine, especially this time of year. It’s sort of like stumbling across a Christmas wreath that mother nature herself made for us.



December 5, 2019

Still digging dahlia roots in December for winter storage

The arctic blast we had in November caught a lot of us off guard. Temperatures at our house dipped down to nine above zero. Along with the cold air we got about eight or nine inches of snow.

It turns out the snow was actually a blessing in disguise. It was like a warm blanket to the plants in the landscape.

I was able to successfully dig the last of my dahlias just before Thanksgiving despite the mid-winter like conditions the week before. Soil temperatures were still fairly warm, the snow insulated the soil from the frigid air keeping it from being frozen.

Leave stalks until you're ready to dig.

Leave stalks until you’re ready to dig.

I always leave my dahlia stalks intact until digging time. Dahlia stalks are hollow, if they’re cut off from the roots there’s a chance the stubs will collect water from rain and funnel it down to the tubers. The extra moisture leaves the tubers susceptible to rot. Leaving the stalks also makes them easier to find.

Generally, I like to keep my dahlia tubers in the ground as long as possible. They are one of those kinds of plants whose roots keep developing even after the tops have been killed by frost. The cold temperature stimulates “eyes” to form. The eyes are where next year’s growth will occur, much like a potato eye.

So now we’re in early December, soil temperatures are still above freezing, thanks to that first early snowfall and moderate late fall air temperatures.

 It may not be too late to salvage dahlias that were left in your garden especially if your flower garden is in a well drained, protected area with a southern exposure. Those conditions make a micro-climate condition that will make it more likely your dahlias are still waiting for you to dig them. The soil temperature in my south facing garden was 42° F on December 4th. When you consider the ideal stage temperature for dahlias is around to 45 °F you can be pretty sure those dahlia tubers are still in fine shape and well developed.

Dahlia tuber clump after digging.

Dahlia tuber clump after digging.

The window of opportunity won’t last long though. Cold rains can drop the soil temperature quickly. And if we get a really cold snap without snow, it will definitely be all over.

There’s a wide range of opinions on how to store dahlia tubers. Some gardeners suggest washing the garden soil off of the roots others leave the soil on. Some like to divide the clumps into individual tubers before storing but storing whole clumps works too. Whole clumps sometimes get very tough during storage making them harder to separate in the spring, but that depends on the variety.

If you know the variety, label the tubers before you put them into storage.

As mentioned earlier, storage temperature around 40°F or a little higher is about right. The tubers must be packed in some kind of porous medium to regulate humidity. I’ve used sawdust, wood shavings, potting mix and peat moss in past years. Sawdust seemed to work the best. The fellow I learned about growing dahlias always said to pack your tubers in plastic vegetable bags. You’re basically trying to keep them like fresh vegetables for as long as possible without letting them rot.

Check them every 3 or 4 weeks for rotting or signs of shriveling. If it looks like they are drying out too quickly, add a small amount of moisture to the storage medium. The tubers and sawdust will continue to exchange moisture until they reach equilibrium. As the storage temperature changes, so must the humidity. It takes a little practice to determine what that moisture content looks like in your particular storage situation.



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