The Yellow Farmhouse Garden

February 1, 2018

A local interpretation of Groundhog Day

Growing up in a rural area of southern Michigan, I had a chance to absorb a lot of our local farm culture. Back them there were plenty of old-timers who, in their younger days,  had farmed their acreage with teams of horses. Those gray-haired farmers had plenty of advice and time-worn proverbs to pass along. One that stands out for me is the meaning of Groundhog Day.

I don’t know the history of  Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney but the town has so successfully managed to turn Groundhog Day into its own event that many people don’t even know, or care, that this minor holiday has been around way before weatherman Phil Connors got caught in that time-loop in Pennsylvania. The first time I ever heard of the town of Punxsutawney was on an episode of  The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. I’m not sure in what context it was, I just thought it was funny to hear a cartoon character say “Punxsuatawney Pennsylvania”.

Most of the farmers in our area had some sort of livestock, often it was dairy cows. They would grow corn and hay as feed for their animals rather than purchase it off site from somewhere else. That meant storing feed on the farm; dried corn, still on the cobs, in corn-cribs and hay up in the second story hay mows above the livestock area on the ground floor. Farmers could easily judge by eye how much their livestock were eating.

Feeding livestock through the winter could be a challenge if the previous growing season’s harvest was below normal. Groundhog Day was, according to those farmers I knew, the half-way point of winter. By that they meant, if you still had half of your feed or more left in storage by Groundhog Day, you will make it through to spring. If not, then potentially you would run short of feed.

In our rural elementary school, Groundhogs Day was a fairly big deal. Our teachers never mentioned the practical side of the day but we did learn about the whole six weeks before spring thing. My classmates would come in to school on the morning of February second and excitedly report if they thought there was enough sunlight for a groundhog to cast a shadow.

I still use this day as reminder when I look in my deep-freezer and estimate how much frozen garden produce I have left from last year’s harvest.



January 25, 2018

Do your plants a favor by taking advantage of January thaw

Filed under: Houseplants,Indoor Gardening,Insects,Potted Plants,Weather — bob @ 1:34 pm


During many winters we have a January thaw. We had a very welcomed warm spell last week and it looks like there will be another warm-up this week too, even though it may not be quite as warm this time around.

I always like to take advantage of those warm mid-winter days to freshen up my house plants and others that I have growing  inside.

Three of my citrus trees, which are about six feet tall including the pot, share space in a southern window in my woodworking area. That means their leaves are often covered in fine sawdust depending on the project I’m working on. I recently finished a project that required quite a bit of sanding which developed a lot of sawdust that settled on the citrus tree leaves.

Last week’s thaw gave me the opportunity to haul out my two wheel hand-truck and wheel out the heavy potted trees out to the driveway. I didn’t need to hose off the plants because of the drenching rain that came later in the day. That rain was all that was needed to get them clean. Since then however, I’ve generated more saw dust and they’re all dusty again.

My 17 year old citrus trees have been rinsed off every January thaw.

My 17 year old citrus trees have been rinsed off every January thaw.

The good news is that temperatures are predicted to be near 50 degrees F during the next couple of days. That’ll be the the perfect time to wheel them back out and rinse them off again, only this time I’ll have to drag out the hose. Some of my larger house plants are going to get a good outdoor rinsing too.

This mid-winter rinsing not only washes off dust but even more importantly, it removes many of the small insect and other pests found on indoor plants such as spider mites, mealy bugs and scale. The population of  those types of pests can build up to a damaging level inside a warm, dry winter environment like we have in many Michigan homes this time of year. Rinsing with water knocks back the insect population to a tolerable level.

Mature citrus tree leaves are tough and can handle strong streams of water. Other plants though have more tender leaves which can be bruised by a too vigorous spray from an exuberant gardener — I know, I’ve done it.

If you plan to do a mid-winter rinsing, I suggest you start with a fine spray and increase the pressure if needed.  You’ll have to use your best judgement as you go along. I use a three-hole nozzle that puts out a very fine, yet strong stream of water that knocks off just about everything without damaging leaves. Be sure to spray the under-side of the leaves. That’s where the biggest concentration of pests will be hiding.









September 19, 2017

Monitor grape ripening

Filed under: Fruit,Weather — bob @ 1:11 pm

According to my records, my grapes are about ten days ahead of last year at this date. Every growing season is different and any particular year doesn’t necessarily line up with seasonal average growing conditions.

Ten days is a long time when it comes to grapes. I covered the grapes with netting last week to keep the birds from robbing the grapevines. If I had followed the calendar and waited until last year’s date to cover them, the birds would have eaten them all by now.

I have a trick that I use to determine when to put on the netting. I have a vine of early grapes that ripen about a week earlier than my main crop. When the birds start eating the grapes from that vine, I know it’s time to get the netting on my main crop. It’s a quick and easy way for me to keep track of grape development since I have so many other things going on than just grapes. Serious grape growers have more sophisticated ways o monitoring their grapes but this method works for me.

Color is not a good indicator of ripeness.

Color is not a good indicator of ripeness.

How did my grapes get so far ahead from last year? Plants need a certain amount of heat during the growing season to grow and develop. Scientist have developed a thing called “growing degree days” to help farmers predict when crops reach a particular stage of development. I looked the the growing degree days for our area to see if how much warmer the growing season was, thinking that might account for the early timing of my grapes. The record shows that there are fewer growing degrees this year than last! How could that be?

Some time earlier during the growing season, we had a warm stretch of weather that pushed the grapes into further along in their development than they normally would be. That means the grapes would be that much further along. Raw degree days won’t tell us very much about plant development for specific crops. Plant scientists have come up with methods to apply that data that are unique to each individual crop. Had I been following those scientific parameters, I would have known even before the birds when the grape would be ready to cover.


August 31, 2017

Sycamore trees lost their leaves

Filed under: Trees,Weather — bob @ 5:34 am

The stretch of dry weather we had took its toll on some sycamore trees planted in a less than ideal spot this season. Although sycamores can grow in dry areas, they thrive in moist soils. That causes a bit of a problem since the best spot to build a structure is on a high and dry area — the exact opposite of the what is preferred by a sycamore tree.

People love sycamores because of their maple-like leaves and unique bark. A healthy, thriving sycamore is a wonderful sight and is makes fine shade tree, although they can be messy. However, unless a building site has a low, moist spot, a sycamore should not be your first choice. When these trees are planted on the wrong site, they never get a chance to live up to their full potential. A dry site can actually significantly shorten their lifespan.

Powdery mildew is a plant disease that can show up this time of year on sycamores. And that is exactly what happened on a trio of sycamores I was asked to look at last week. Usually powdery mildew shows up first on the newest leaves, but on those trees so many leaves were gone, I was only able to find the fuzzy fungus growth on the few older leaves still attached to the tree.

This sycamore has lost virtually all of its leaves. Compare that to the maples in the background that have nearly all of their leaves.

This sycamore has lost virtually all of its leaves. Compare that to the maples in the background that have nearly all of their leaves.

Normally mildew is not a serious problem on sycamores, it causes leaves to drop but the trees bounce right back the next season. I’m somewhat concerned about those three trees. The combination of the dry site and powdery mildew may leave the trees in a permanent weakened condition. Healthy sycamores are fast growing trees but these seem to be languishing in that spot. The prescription in this case is to irrigate the trees as soon as the start of a dry spell is expected — every year from here on out.

Since trees can live for decades or even centuries, take some time to survey your planting site and match the tree to the conditions.


December 15, 2016

Protect potted perennials from winter cold

Filed under: Potted Plants,Weather — bob @ 8:45 am

Just about every year, going into winter, I have perennials or other potted plants left over from the growing season that never got planted for one reason or another. I usually have plans for them so I like to keep them over winter.

It’s a good idea to keep plants out as long as possible in the fall. An occasional short cold snap doesn’t bother the plants at all. This year the mild fall weather lasted so long that I just now got most of them put away into their winter storage spots.

The most valuable plants I worry about are my bonsai.  They are several years old, my false sequoia is well over 20 years old. All the bonsai are hardy trees that require a cold dormant period to complete their annual life cycle so have to be kept outside during the winter.

There’s a spot under my mature pine trees where the bonsai spend the winter. There I dig a hole and place them in the hole on their sides. Placing them sideways keeps snow melt water (which we get sometimes) from accumulating in the pots. That reduces the chance that the terracotta pots will crack when the water re-freezes. Soil excavated from the hole gets banked up over the pots and the crown of the trees. I then rake plenty pine needles over the tops to insulate them from the cold winter temperature and wind. The entire storage area gets covered with a tarp or other kind of covering.

I put the rest of my perennials in various places around my property. I have a number of  left over grape cuttings that I rooted this spring. Those I tucked away in a well-drained spot in the vegetable garden. A few miscellaneous perennial flowers are mixed in there with the grapes.

Pots in trench

A few years back I had some potted elderberry plants that I overwintered in the ground. I buried the pots as usual but put them in a new place, somewhere way out of the way. When spring arrived I was so busy that I forgot I even had elderberry plants. It wasn’t until late June that I saw a group of elderberries growing out of the soil that I remembered I stored them there the previous fall. I learned how a squirrel feels when it forgets where it buried its acorns.

Some weather forecasters are predicting another polar vortex may be taking shape again so it’s time to finish up getting those plants into the ground.




Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress