Native Plants 2: Rudbeckia

Rudbeckia, or Black-eyed Susan
Rudbeckia, native to much of the continental US, bloom throughout most of the summer

Black-eyed Susans are one of the most common native “wildflowers” in the continental US. Hearty and cheerful, they are famous for their ease of care and unpretentious beauty, have become garden staples, and are great for wild-flower gardens. Rudbeckia is native to the central US, they can be found from Massachusetts to Wyoming, and as far south as Florida and New Mexico. Self-seeding coneflowers requiring little other than dead-heading to extend blooming time, they will spread if given the space. The first summer after we bought our house they appeared in our backyard, blooming all along our garage. I’ve done nothing for them over the years — they return every summer, blooming despite my neglect, steadily drifting eastward in our yard.

Rudbeckia like full sun, can manage in part shade, and like well-drained soil that isn’t too rich– they handle drought well once established, making them a good choice if you are conscious of how much water you use in your landscape. Often people let them go to seed in late summer to leave food for birds and winter interest. As seen in this photo from our backyard above, they clump, making big sprays of bright yellow flowers. These plants are diverse, too; they can be found in a range of colors – yellow, orange, red, bronze, and mahogany, and varieties range from 1 to 9 feet in size.

Their virtues include being deer resistant, providing nectar and food for birds, and attracting butterflies. Wildflower.org also says that American Indians used them medicinally, as an external wash for sores, snakebites, and swelling and as a root tea for worms and colds.

Adding them to your garden is easy. They can be direct seeded once daytime temperatures are reliably around 60 degrees, started indoors 6-8 weeks before the last frost, or purchased and transplanted. If you start seeds indoors, they do best kept in a cool place (even your refrigerator) for 4 weeks after seeding. For more on this, the Spruce has a nice article. Keep them moist during the first season as their roots establish.

A final note about natives: many plants we think of as weeds are actually not native to the US — they come from Europe or Asia. Examples include the Dandelion, the Oxeye daisy, Bull thistle, and Queen Anne’s Lace. Rudbeckia are truly native to the United States and contribute as natives to our ecosystem, making them an environmentally conscientious choice for gardeners.

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Native Plant Primer for the Uninitiated, 1.

We’ve been hearing about native plants for a while, especially in my garden club, where a whole committee set about cataloguing the native plants that are growing in member’s gardens last year. Despite being this year’s president I sat this popular effort out because I didn’t know which plants in my garden are native and which aren’t.   I had the mistaken idea that natives are only plants like ferns, buttercups, milkweed, skunk cabbage, and violets–the things you see everywhere and that no one planted. Those things are native, yes, but I’ve since learned that so are purple coneflower, black-eyed susans, phlox, asters, and a host of other fun and interesting lovelies.

Being environmentally minded, it matters to me that birds have food to eat in my garden and that I am supporting the local ecosystem rather than challenging it. Native plants provide shelter and food for local wildlife and support our ever-important and ever-disappearing pollinators. It’s also worth noting that some non-native plants actually negatively impact the environments they are imported to–so native plants help to balance the negative effects of some non-native species.

A not so fun fact: I learned last year that spring peepers are being negatively impacted by the dying off of ash trees. North American frogs rely on ash trees because the leaves ash trees drop are suitable for tadpoles to eat.  Other kinds of trees, like maple trees, have more tannins, and are much less suitable for the frogs. A recent decline of ash trees in our forests has meant a lower survival rate for frogs. I love peepers. So that’s really bad news.

So with all of that in mind, I checked in with Trista Ashok, an experienced member of the Holliston Garden Club, co-chair of the native plants initiative, and blogger at redhousegarden.com. She provided me a list of ten natives off the top of her brilliant head for me to look into and write about for the garden club. 

The first of them: Purple Coneflower – Also called echinacea, purple coneflower is a fun, popular plant with long-lasting flowers.  Drought and heat resistant, echinacea will spread if the seedheads are not pruned off. Echinacea attracts butterflies and hummingbirds, is a nectar source, has special value to native bees. Leaving the seedheads on the plants provides food for birds in the fall and winter.

Interestingly, echinacea has medicinal uses. It is a mild natural antibiotic. Extracts of echinacea are also thought to help fight infection and improve white blood counts because echinacin stops bacteria from forming hyaluronidase enzyme, which makes cells more susceptible to infection (see https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=ecpu). You can find echinacea supplements in health food stores.

Tracy DiSabato-Aust’s The Well-Tended Perennial Garden, says that excellent drainage is a must for these plants, that they like full sun, and that planting in spring rather than fall is better because it allows them to establish sturdy roots before cold weather arrives.  She also says that some of the newer hybrids featuring a range of beautiful colors can be shorter-lived and hard to overwinter. 

I grew them in my garden before learning they are native because they are colorful, not fussy to care for, and have a kind of simple elegance.

I can hardly wait for them to pop up this spring so that I can tell them I now understand they aren’t just another pretty face in the garden–they’re working flowers!

#plants #nature #flowers #environment #garden #gardening #nativeplants

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The Gorgeous Ground Beneath Our Feet

Asparagus emerging in the spring

I was reminded over Christmas to come back to the basics.

It seemed like the signs were myriad, reading the news: bizarre bombing in Nashville, criminals pardoned by the president, the pandemic surging and mutating … it was a good day for WW84 to release. To remember, sitting in my brother’s living room with my kids, eating a meal that he and his partner had lovingly prepared for us, that truth and kindness matter. They are the ground we walk on.

And speaking of the ground we walk on … soil. The food we eat starts with the soil it grows in. Soil is an overlooked wonder; jammed with microbes, microorganisms, and nutrients—soil, together with water and sun, are the alchemical ingredients to health and well-being— not to mention beautiful, strong plants.

It’s too cold in the northern hemisphere to be outside working with the ground but it’s not to cold to think about compost!

Soil has been defined as a natural body composed of minerals, air, water, organic matter, and living organisms. It is complex, having layers, it changes based on the underlying rock, local climate, topography, plants, animals, and fungi that inhabit it. It’s alive with a microbiome that nourish our digestive systems. Fun fact: there are more soil microorganisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil than there are people on Earth. Kind of makes you feel gratitude to contemplate that, right?!

Other facts: the mircobiomes in soil have been known to affect human mood, encouraging calm. No wonder so many of us find gardening therapeutic. Soil is non-renewable, can die, and has an environmental impact because it stores carbon. Soil management can actually affect climate change.

For a beautiful article about soil check out a nice article at rainforest-alliance.org.

We gather up kitchen scraps, including daily coffee grinds, for our compost pile. I am no composting expert but I can tell you that a pile of these things in the backyard, left to do its thing in the sun, rain, and cold for a few months, produces some of the most nutrient-rich, wormy dirt ever. It’s called black gold for a reason.

I know a lot of people don’t have the outdoor space for a compost pile. There are some interesting alternatives like vermicomposting and bokashi fermentation out there that are fun to read about. Check out https://thecompostess.com if you’re interested in a fun site that’s focused on the virtues and nuances of composting.

For backyard-type composting, keep adding to your pile and consider covering it to keep in heat and moisture during cold months. Alternatively, birds and other animals seem happy to pick through compost for nutrients. It’s always fun to see which tracks are around my compost pile after the snow. 🙂

Happy Boxing Day!

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Sage … Delicious, Healing, Magical, Under-appreciated, and Easy to Grow.

Sage growing in my kitchen garden. Irresistible.

Sage (Salvia officinalis) is one of my favorite plants. Having beautiful velvety leaves of a light hue it grows up to around 18 inches tall and has lovely purple flowers during the summer. If you’re considering planting kitchen herbs this year, sage should be on your list. Aside from being a culinary herb that is beautiful in stews, squash soups and all manner of other dishes, it has healing properties:

  • a styptic: it stops bleeding when lightly worked (chewing it, for instance) and applying to a cut or wound.
  • It calms indigestion and discourages constipation. It’s good for ulcerated stomachs.
  • It can be made into a gargle to treat oral infections. Steep a teaspoon of sage in boiled water for 10 minutes and use it as a wash for gum problems and mouth sores or as a gargle for a sore throat.

Along with that, a cup of sage tea taken daily is reputed to help reduce body odor!

Sacred to the tribes of North America, it is commonly used to cleanse and purify the energy of a place. To do this, burn dried leaves and stems; the smoke and fragrance sweep away undesirable energies and influences from a space.

The old-time herbalists had some great and–to a modern reader– amusing things to say about sage:

Culpeper wrote, “A decoction of the leaves and branches made and drank provokes urine, expels the dead child, brings down womens’ courses, and causes the hair to become black. it stays the bleeding of wounds, and cleanses foul ulcers or sores.”

Gerard said, “Sage is singular good for the head and braine, it quickeneth the senses and strengtheneth the sinews, restoreth health to those that have the palsie upon a moist cause, takes away shaking and trembling of the members, and being put up into the nostrils, it draweth thin flegme out of the head.”

More recently, Paul Beyerl wrote that, “One of its constituents, thujone, is a potent antibacterial, one of the best among herbs, which is contained as a volatile oil.”

Sage is easy to grow. It’s a tough plant that is drought resistant and its beautiful in the garden; planted behind shorter plants it’s a respectful neighbor (not invasive) and it’s fragrance is lovely. It attracts pollinators and gives the space of feeling of grace and vitality.

When I’m cooking I just pop out with some scissors to cut a sprig for my dish, and in the fall I cut it back and hang the branches to dry for cooking or tea. I’ve noticed that the plant flowers more when I haven’t cut it back aggressively the year before so I leave some of the plant to encourage blooms.

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Winter Thyme

Last night we made a stew that called for fresh thyme. We’ve had storms but there’s no giant pile of snow outside our door, so the kitchen thyme continues to thrive. It’s compact, fragrant, woody little self is a persistent and adorable tenant in our landscape.

It would be hard to overstate how satisfying it was to step out into the cool air of our kitchen walkway and snip fresh sprigs of this sweet little plant rather than open a glass jar of dried herbs.

Most of our kitchen herbs grow just down a stone walkway near to the kitchen, and they are looking very dormant right now. But there is a tiny patch of ground just by the door that is big enough to accommodate a little thyme plant; it seems happy in its protected south-facing spot. So last night I grabbed a pair of scissors, pulled my hood on, opened the door, and snipped what I needed, thanking my little friend and thankful that it isn’t buried in a mountain of snow, yet.

In these dark winter days, the cool, moist fragrance of this little thyme plant was reassuring and comforting, nourishing to my mind and senses, and helped me be fully present for a moment of sweet appreciation.

Hooray for the little things.

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Home Office

At the start of the pandemic I worked at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute. When they sent everyone home to work, the parent company Harvard Pilgrim Health Care invited us to send in photos of our home offices.

I found it challenging to assemble and share a photo of my space. First, I was busy working. But also, every attempt at settling myself into a space that felt good and comfortable seemed to result in another round of tweaking. The sun was causing glare if I sat here. The space was too cramped if I sat there. The wifi was better on one side of the room than the other owing to the router being upstairs …

I’d worked from home lots up to that day but I’d always perched at the kitchen counter on a stool. With the kids at school all was quiet and that arrangement worked. But the pandemic brought everyone home at once, the kitchen now had teenagers rummaging around in the fridge and talking loudly on face time with their friends between classes.

So, I retreated to a spare bedroom that faces the north west of our old farmhouse.

A view to the west from my home office desk. African violet and succulents for company.

I finally settled on a spot that works, popped a couple of plants onto my desk and brought a comfy dining room chair in to sit on. Together with being able to work in pajamas or yoga pants if I want to, this arrangement has proven very agreeable.

peppermint, oxalis, and a small rose next to my desk looking south

Likewise, everyone in our house has settled in. My son Tristan, taking engineering classes from his bedroom at the University of Massachusetts, has created a desk space that features a keyboard and speakers to accommodate his passion is making/producing hiphop beats between classes.

Tristan’s space: electrical engineering, physics, calculus, and hiphop beats done here.

My daughter Inga, a sophomore in high school, has created a desk on her vanity. If you knew her, you’d know that’s absolutely perfect. 🙂 Importantly, along with being a highly motivated makeup artist, evaluator of personal care products and skin care expert, she’s an athlete, social justice activist, and a serious student, too (lest I misrepresent my beautiful daughter as shallow, which she is not).

My husband Jon, an entrepreneur and emergency physician, had an office that was not well organized (it was a mess), had a pile of framed diplomas collecting dust behind a door, and boasted the ugliest area rug ever created. Inga and I, sick of looking at it, went out shopping when he was at the hospital one night and got him a new carpet, replacing it and organizing his desk and surrounding space before he returned from his shift.

leading content creation for CredibleMind and writing patient charts happens here
the 5 most prized

We had a lot of fun rummaging through the box and picking 5 frames to hang that we know are the most important to him.

Aloe and a big jade sit in the foyer window next door to Jon’s desk

It’s certain that if we had never descended into months of working from home during a pandemic these personal work spaces would not have come to be. I would never have appreciated how cool my son is–sad to say, but I think it’s probably true. Or that my daughter would want to be able to monitor her appearance throughout the school day.

Actually, I might have been able to guess that. 🙂

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In the Dark, During the Long, Long Pandemic… New Growth

We heard from the hospital this week that they are hoping to administer vaccinations for clinical care workers starting in mid-December. Huzzah. At 62 with heart disease Jon is a risk, and we worry all the time.

Still, the rest of us will wait and this winter will not be a festive one. Getting outside is always welcome, but there’s not much that’s green or blooming to see. The sun’s day is shorter and shorter … it’s definitely time to look for reasons to be cheerful, to find some surrogates for sun and company.

So, here’s one: little green babies. I love them.

In this case, jade babies. I bought a $3.00 tiny jade last year at Weston Nurseries. They had a table of tiny succulents that were no doubt intended for people wanting to create a little garden of succulents in a container. But this little plant caught my eye and I popped it into my cart. No other succulents, no container.

It became tall and leggy, gained no width, and was bending way over toward the window, top heavy and gimpy. So I snipped it, and snipped it again, nestling the cut stems into potting soil, and popped them into a window. I wasn’t sure what would happen but the plant definitely needed a haircut so why not give it a try? I watered them weekly (more or less) and this is the result.

Whenever I pass by them my eye catches the light, fresh new green of these little leaves, it’s a little having low maintenance kittens. So cute!

You can do this with leaves, too. If a jade sheds leaves you can lay them in the soil and water them. It takes a while but they root, and make sweet little plants.

They remind me that a little bit of care can go a long way, and a small thing can bring some happiness and pleasure. Even during the darkest days of a pandemic.

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Why Blog About Plants?

Photo by Daniel Öberg on Unsplash

Pausing to contemplate what this blog will be about this year as winter descends I realized that for so many of us what matters is connection. A real, lasting sense of feeling tied to the things that matter, the things that sustain, nurture, and give us a feeling of place and belonging.

This blog, back in its earliest days, was intended to be an expression of that and increasingly I realize that plugging into planet is just as valuable and important to people (and me) as plugging into the internet is.

So to that end, this blog will pivot slightly (but not that much) in that direction, focusing on easy, hard, hopefully inspiring and accessible ways of tying into the planet in ways that support a feeling of connection to the food, smells, tastes and happiness that knowing your food, your plants, your flowers, and all of the blessings that plant life can bestow, bring.

There will be blogs about growing herbs, hemp, vegetables, pot (yes, cannabis), flowers (perennial, mostly), and even a nod to our chickens and bunnies, to come. Aside from eggs and love, the bunnies are a great source of fertilizer. You can grow in a small planter or you can plant a garden in the ground or you can create raised bed(s). Or anything in between.

Whatever you choose, may you find and create a source of joy, pleasure, investment, occasional annoyance, and most importantly, connection to the energy that gives you a sense of belonging and ownership on this spaceship we call Earth.

Peace, love, and wellbeing.

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Interconnected

As we all carry on wrestling with keeping a safe distance and trying to find some “normal” in our lives, the notion of our interconnected ness is front and center. After all, sharing airspace has become a matter of public debate, personal anxiety, and for some, a death sentence.

In the yoga classes I attend and teach, we end our practice with the sound of Om, as a reminder that we are all interconnected. Never has that seemed more relevant.

If you stop to consider the effect of your choices, it’s humbling. For example, rushing to arrive somewhere you cut another driver off. It’s frustrating to that person, and they become agitated and pass that agitation on in their own driving. Or you stop to hold the door for someone else and they thank you in a way that makes it clear they appreciated the gesture. They go on to have a better day, thinking better of the world.

The real impact of the effect we have in our moment to moment way of being is felt by those closest to us, though. The person closest to you is your self. Starting there, showing yourself gentleness and kindness, is the key. If you speak to yourself the way you would speak to a person you care tenderly for, that kindness will empower you to offer kindness to those around you.

I notice when I am hard on myself I extend that same kind of expectation and judgement to the people around me. Not surprisingly that does not encourage harmony. So I’ve spent time over recent months trying to change that habit of mind; I’ve tried monitoring my thoughts and words, practicing gratitude, and meditating. All of those things are helpful and encourage calm. But the thing that really works is speaking to myself with kindness and then harnessing that same kindness when I speak to others.

I don’t know if that sounds hard to you but I found that it IS hard. We are so good at being our own critics that we usually don’t speak to ourselves with kindness. When I first tried it I didn’t know what to say to myself. Really, I had nothing nice to say? Nope. I couldn’t think of anything. So I wound up beginning with a loving-kindness meditation. That started the ball rolling for me.

As part of that meditation you have to extend wishes for well-being to yourself, those you care about, others that are not close to you and finally, you have to wish a “challenging” person well. Not surprisingly this was hard and I nearly lost interest in the practice because frankly it’s not fun to wish the challenging person I was thinking of well. HOWEVER, one of my yoga teachers, Jeff Convery at the Yoga Exchange Holliston, once suggested that we spend time on the first part – wishing ourselves well – for as long as that felt right, before moving on.

I embraced that advice with fervor, wishing good things for myself during meditation like a champ. May I be healthy. May I experience peace. May I be happy. May I feel safe. May I feel nurtured. May I feel supported. May I be healthy, peaceful, happy, safe, nurtured, supported … over and over. The outcome was that I felt healthier, more peaceful, happier, safer, more nurtured and supported (Go figure). And I had a lot more kindness to offer to other people, thanks to generating some for myself. True Story.

I’m still working this whole new way of talking to myself. I am no less ready to speak my mind if I feel someone has been thoughtless or impolite. But I think being kind to myself takes practice and is like a muscle — it performs better with practice.

Consider how your own mood, your words, your actions affect you and everyone around you and then tell yourself: may I be happy. May I be safe. May I experience peace, may I come into a giant inheritance. You can skip that last one if it’s too much.

A rose accidentally left out in the snow, brought in to thaw. Resilient, beautiful.

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Houseplants Make Good Company

There’s something about the word houseplants that makes me think of macrame hangers from the 70s (now enjoying a return) and my mother’s gigantic spider plants hanging in the window. But really, they’re cool. Stick with me for a minute and I’ll tell you what I mean.

indoor garden plant: cactusia noelica indoorica

This Christmas Cactus was discovered lying on it’s side on the floor of a Walmart at Christmas time. One night after work I stopped on my way home from the office to shop for some ornaments. I wanted to decorate the first Christmas tree I would have living on my own after finishing college and moving into an apartment.

I had a big cart and was wheeling it around looking at boxes of glass ornaments, and strings of tinsel … there was Christmas music playing and I was feeling like I’d rather be in a cute little boutique shopping for ornaments than a grey, cavernous Walmart. But such was my budget.

Anyway, there it was on the ground in the middle of the aisle, potting soil spilling out of it’s broken pot: A little Christmas Cactus. I bent to pick it up and replace it on it’s shelf and noticed the potting soil was so dry it was like a weightless brick. I could hear it begging for rescue. Really, actually hear it. So, instead of putting it back on it’s shelf I put it in my cart and paid full price for it.

I know: bargain hunter, right?

Well, that plant has seen to it that I got a return on my investment. Every single year since then this cactus has bloomed for me no matter where I’ve left it in the house, or whether I’ve forgotten to water it. I’ve moved from place to place, leaving it here and there. Sometimes it isn’t happy with where I’ve place it, sometimes it is. But no matter it’s mood, that plant gives me flowers.

As you can see in the photo, it’s doing it again. I found a spot not far from a south window that it seems to like well enough. It’s faithful in its timing – it blooms every November and is done before Christmas.

I have a bunch of beloved house plants– they all have their own spirits and personalities. I’ll be writing about some of the plants I bring in to winter over in coming weeks. But this cactus is my favorite because of it’s loyalty and appreciation.

We should all have a friend like that, don’t you think? Mine happens to be a cactus.

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