The Yellow Farmhouse Garden

August 22, 2019

Purslane in the garden, friend or foe?

Returning to one of my gardens after being away for a week, I noticed there were a lot of weeds that had spread over the garden. I thoroughly hoed the garden before I went away the previous week but I didn’t have time to rake up the cut and dislodged weed stalks. Usually the hot August sun is enough to dry them up and finish them off. There were a couple of good thunderstorms that rolled through during my absence that dropped enough rain to keep the weed stalks moist.

Most of the weeds that got cut off by hoeing did die despite the rain. One notable exception was the purslane. It was present in fairly high numbers and the plants were small, but they did get hoed.

Purslane has succulent leaves that resist drought and desiccation. Small pieces of stems can take root and grow into full size plants. It also has a central taproot that, if cut but not removed, can rapidly regrow.

These cut pieces of purslane will root themselves if not removed from the garden.

These cut pieces of purslane will root themselves if not removed from the garden.

In one area the purslane formed a nice mat devoid of other weeds. In that spot the other weeds died from the hoeing while the purslane was able to reestablish itself taking up all available growing space.

Purslane does not compete very much with most vegetable crops for water and nutrients. There has been some thought by researchers about the possibility of using purslane as an alternative to herbicides for some food crops. Because it is low growing and can form a dense mat, it is able to reduce the number of more aggressive weeds from getting started. I’m not inclined to experiment with that this year but I may devote a small plot next year to a purslane companion plant trial. Let me know in the comments if that would be something you’d like to see.

Very few other weeds were growing in this dense mat of purslane.

Very few other weeds were growing in this dense mat of purslane.

Purslane is considered a wholesome food in many cultures around the world. It was brought to this continent by Europeans over 500 years ago, back when they didn’t know about introducing alien plant species to a new area. As a result, you can find it in most farm fields, gardens and landscapes.

Cultivated varieties have been developed that grow upright and have much larger leaves. Seeds for those are available at many seed sellers. I’ve even seen seeds of the wild variety for sale on eBay and other sites. I don’t think that would be a very good idea since each purslane plant can produce hundreds of tiny seeds that can eventually become a problem. I may be willing to grow a cultivated variety just to try it out but not a wild plant that has the potential to turn into a weed in my garden.

Purslane leaves and stems are edible and quite tasty,

Purslane leaves and stems are edible and quite tasty,

Lately I have started eating my wild purslane more regularly. In the past I’d nibble on a stem or two just for fun but now I’m including it in my diet more and more, especially since my lettuce is long gone. It is very nutritious, as are many other wild edibles. Along with high concentrations of the more common nutrients, very high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids are also present – five times more than spinach.

My favorite way to eat purslane is to add a few sprigs to my salad or put it in a sandwich. Both the leaves and stems are edible.

About three and a half ounces of fresh purslane constitutes one serving.

 Bob

 

August 15, 2019

Michigan monarch butterflies and milkweeds up north

We’ve been spending time in northeast Michigan on and off for the past month or so. In one particular location, I noticed more Monarch butterflies this year than in the past.

A couple of weeks ago there were at least a dozen Monarch adult females frantically flying around from plant to plant laying eggs on a colony of milkweed plants. That lasted for a couple of days and was still going on when we left for home.

We returned earlier this week expecting to find caterpillars all over the place. The plants were still there but there were no caterpillars to be found anywhere. The only difference was the plants had bloomed and the blossoms were quickly fading.

These are a different species of milkweed than we have at home. The purple flowers with their distinctive scent along with a purple mid-vein on the leaves, plus other traits, told us these were purple milkweed, Asclepias purpurascens. At our home in southeastern Michigan we have mostly common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca.

 There are several species of milkweed. This is purple milkweed.

There are several species of milkweed. This is purple milkweed.

I’m not sure why no caterpillars developed on the purple milkweed plants. It could be that predators ate the eggs before they hatched or ate the small caterpillars just as they emerged from their eggs.

On the other hand, this past weekend in the Caseville area, our daughter Robin and her cousins saw tons of caterpillars on milkweeds. Each and every plant, even the yellowing ones, had at least two caterpillars, others had even more. They didn’t know what species of milkweed those were since the plants hadn’t started blossoming yet. Adult females were quite busy laying eggs there too.

With that many caterpillars you expect to see evidence of predators and they did. While admiring a caterpillar up close, out of nowhere a predatory wasp zoomed in and dive bombed it. The caterpillar fell from the plant and was writhing wildly on the ground. When the spasming ceased, the hikers returned him to his roost on the milkweed. The hikers didn’t know it at the time, but the caterpillar was already doomed. The wasp had laid its eggs inside the caterpillar’s body making a nursery for a new generation of wasps.

We did eventually find a caterpillar on the purple milkweeds in the northeast location. We found it in a most unlikely spot. While we were hiking through a dense, shady cedar swamp with ferns, mushrooms, and jack-in-the-pulpits we came across a clearing where some trees were knocked over during a storm.

forest floor up north

In the middle of that sunny clearing was a single purple milkweed plant that had one lonely monarch caterpillar that was nearly full grown.

An airborne milkweed seed landed in the middle of the woods and took root. Later a female butterfly found it and laid an egg.

An airborne milkweed seed landed in the middle of the woods and took root. Later a female butterfly found it and laid an egg.

 Deep in this seemingly inhospitable environment, it was no place for a butterfly. It’s a wonder how the Mother Monarch found her way there at all.

 Bob

July 31, 2019

Agricultural paper mulch is performing well so far

In a previous blog post I discussed how I was experimenting with agricultural paper as a weed barrier to control weeds in my garden.

Agricultural paper mulch is engineered to slowly break down over the course of a growing season. Then when the growing season is over, whatever is left of it gets tilled into your garden soil. That saves lots of labor and keeps debris out of the landfill. Plus, it adds a bit of organic matter to the topsoil.

Since it is paper, no nasty chemicals are released into the environment as garden soil microorganisms break it down. As a result, it is suitable for organic growing unlike “biodegradable plastic” that does breakdown into unwanted compounds.

We’re well into the growing season and it’s been about five weeks since I installed the agricultural paper in my garden. It’s protecting a row of tomatoes about twenty feet long. I thought it would be a good time to see how well it’s holding up.

Areas of paper are completely gone along the edges.

Areas of paper are completely gone along the edges.

The decomposition process is beginning to be noticeable. You can see it as you walk by that the color is fading somewhat and that it’s coming apart here and there. It is however, still doing a great job keeping weeds from growing. The only places where weeds are evident are in the openings I made for planting and in spots where there was a tear or other damage.

The weakest spots are those narrow areas where the paper meets the soil surface where the edges are buried. In many places the paper is missing.

Paper is missing where it touched a lump of soil.

Paper is missing where it touched a lump of soil.

This is where the most biological activity is happening. I am not sure if is due to bacterial decomposition or from soil creatures like pill bugs chewing on it. It may be a combination of the two as the paper weakens making it more appealing to pill bugs or other arthropods.

So far, even with all the rain we’ve had, the paper is holding up quite well. I’ll continue monitoring the mulch and will keep you updated as the season progresses.

 Bob

 

July 11, 2019

Adding dye to your sprayer mix to help you see where you sprayed

Filed under: Equipment,Pesticides,Weeds — Tags: , , — bob @ 8:55 am

So far it’s been a great growing season for trees, shrubs and perennial plants. Maybe you’ve noticed how much growth has been made so far this year making the landscape look so much more green. I bet, a hundred years from now, when people are looking at tree rings, they’ll notice how large the growth ring is from 2019.

Along with everything else, problem plants such as poison ivy have also been going great guns. It’s a good idea to knock back these plants before they get out of control. The most efficient way is to use herbicide sprays.

The most popular herbicides, such as Round-up and others, are the “non-selective” type meaning they will kill just about any and all plants they touch. When applying these herbicides, it’s very easy to overspray and accidentally kill neighboring desirable plants along with the weed you’re trying to get rid of. To minimize that problem, farmers, landscapers and other plant professionals use a marker dye added to their spray mix to help them see where they sprayed. Generally those dyes wash off in the rain or otherwise dissipate pretty quickly after drying. Those kinds of marker or indicator dyes are available at hardware stores and farm supply stores.

An excellent alternative to marker dyes for homeowners is Rit all-purpose fabric dye. Rit actually dyes the plant leaves, leaving the color visible for quite some time. That is a great advantage if you don’t get all of your spraying done and have to return later to finish the job.

Blue is the traditional color for dying spray.

Liquid Rit dye is much easier to use than powered.

Traditionally, blue is the color used for indicator dyes. This year I’m also trying out red to see how it works, mainly because it was on sale for half price. If it doesn’t work, maybe I’ll try tie dying some tee-shirts.

About one and one-third ounces of liquid Navy Blue Rit will dye a gallon of spray and provide enough color to produce a light-blue hue that will be noticeable on the plants even after drying.

An eight ounce bottle of liquid Rit runs around five bucks at craft stores.

Bob

June 21, 2019

Using agricultural paper mulch in the garden

Filed under: Mulch,Planting,Weeds — Tags: , , — bob @ 2:57 pm

Through the years I’ve used a lot of different kinds of mulch ranging from natural materials like straw or grass to man made materials such as plastic sheeting. The plastic I’ve tried has been in all the colors of the rainbow plus some that aren’t.

They’ve all claimed to have an advantage over plain black plastic. The color red was supposed to enhance tomato production. Light reflecting off of silver was supposed to confuse insect pests and on and on. Maybe there was a small incremental advantage they provided that could be seen over acres of crop, but in the garden I could never detect any.

One thing they all have in common is that they physically suppress weeds by preventing growth or inhibiting seed germination. I’ve settled on run of the mill black plastic.

This year I’m experimenting with agricultural paper mulch. It’s been around for some time — maybe you’ve tried it.  I’ve never thought to use it until I started reading about the problems plastic products in general are causing. Some countries have even threatened to declare war over it. Then there’s the problem of micro-plastics showing up everywhere in the environment.

Paper mulch doesn’t have those kinds of drawbacks. One big advantage is, over the course of a growing season, it will slowly break down. Then when the growing season is over, it can be tilled into the soil saving a lot of work removing it.

There are biodegradable plastic sheet mulch products that farmers use but first generation materials leave behind undesirable by-products in the soil as they decompose. That’s the reason why many of these products are not approved for organic farming. The paper mulch I have has been found to be acceptable by an organic certifying agency.

When I opened the box, I expected to see brown paper, sort of like a grocery bag but it has a faint purple hue to it. I don’t know if that is a result of the manufacturing process or if the color was added to differentiate if from other paper products.

Like all kinds of sheet mulch, it’s critical that the edges are firmly secured so the wind doesn’t get under it and tear it or blow it away. Some gardeners pin down their mulches with metal landscape pins. I like to make shallow trenches that accept the edges of the mulch then I’ll bury the edges with soil, sort of like what a farmer’s mulch laying machine would do.

Installing paper mulch is similar to plastic mulch.

Installing paper mulch is similar to plastic mulch.

You have to be a little careful when laying it down. With plastic if you start to veer off course, you can stretch it back in place. Paper does not stretch so any adjustments have to be made slowly over a distance. To minimize any placement issues, I stretch string as a guide when digging my trenches.

Paper mulch cuts easily with a pair of scissors or a utility knife.

Paper mulch cuts easily with a pair of scissors or a utility knife.

It’s important to have a smooth seed bed too so that the paper will lay flat and not have open voids between it and the soil surface.

To plant, I cut an X-shaped opening and fold back the edges of the cut. Then I carefully dig out some soil and place the plant in the hole and fold back the paper.

The paper makes an attractive looking mulch when it is new, I’m not sure how it will look after being exposed to garden conditions for several weeks.

This fall I’ll let you know how it performs over the course of a growing season and how well it tills in to the soil.

Bob

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