The Yellow Farmhouse Garden

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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