Thursday, May 31, 2012

Weeds Part 1 - Poison Hemlock

Poison Hemlock - Conium maculatum
Photo Credit C. Mayer

I've always had a sneaking admiration for weeds.  We gardeners spend a whole lot of time creating a perfect spot to nurture a plant - rich, organic soil, regularly fertilizing for its nutrient needs, watering during a drought, etc. and yet still lose specimens. 

Then, you notice a dandelion thriving in the crack of a sidewalk in the most inhospital location possible, with no help at all from us.

So, here’s another new feature I hope to do for the blog – a regular entry highlighting a weed of some sort that you might notice in your gardens, or, like this week's entry, conspicuously growing alongside the road. But before we get into the details on this particular weed, let’s start off with some background about the plants that will be in this series, or What are Weeds and Why Should We Care?  From the Penn State guide:

There are numerous definitions of a weed, including:
  • a plant out of place and not intentionally sown 
  • a plant growing where it is not wanted 
  • a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered. (R.W.Emerson) 
  • plants that are competitive, persistent, pernicious, and interfere negatively with human activity (Ross, et. al.) and many others.
No matter what definition is used, weeds are plants whose undesirable qualities outweigh their good points, according to man. Our human activities create weed problems since no plant is a "weed" in nature. Though we may try to manipulate nature for our own good, nature is persistent. Through the manipulation process, certain weeds are controlled, while, other more serious weeds may thrive because favorable growing conditions for them also have been meet. Weeds are naturally strong competitors and those weeds that can best compete always tend to dominate. Both humans and nature are involved in plant breeding programs. The main difference between the two programs is that man breeds plants for yield, while nature breeds plants for survival.
So there is nothing inherent to a plant that automatically classifies it as a weed; it must have some human, subjectively-defined aspect that makes it harmful, or even an arbitrarily assigned "I don't want it growing there" decision on the part of the gardener to designate it as such.  So in many cases, one person's "weed" is another person's "wild flower."  In subsequent posts, we'll discuss Pennsylvania's regulatorily defined noxious weeds, and touch on invasive plants, as well, but for now, let’s look at a plant you may have noticed in bloom right now, growing alongside the road - Conium maculatum, or Poison Hemlock.

Poison Hemlock, or Conium maculatum
Photo Credit C. Mayer

The common name pretty much sums up why it’s considered a weed – its toxicity. The plant’s infamy was secured back in ancient Greece when it was used as a means of execution, with its most notable victim being the philosopher Socrates.  The plant is native to Europe, but was brought over here as an ornamental plant, where it escaped cultivation and is now widespread along roadsides, hiking trails, ditches and field borders. 

Although grazing animals will avoid it given alternatives, it can cause problems in fields harvested for hay or silage. It merits a chapter in Amy Stewart’s book, Wicked Plants. Botanically, it is a bienniel in the same family of plants as carrots, parsley, and Queen Anne's Lace.  The poisonous compounds it produces are in the same family of chemicals as nicotine, but at much higher concentrations than found in tobacco plants.

Here are five basic safety rules to avoid accidental poisoning:
  • NEVER eat any part of an unknown plant whether in your yard or in the wild.
  • NEVER chew on jewelry made from plant parts such as seeds. Children should not be allowed to use them for teething or "play jewelry".
  • NEVER attempt to make your own "Nature tea" unless you know the plant you are using and you know that the recipe is from an authoritative source.
  • IF YOU GROW YOUR OWN HERBS for cooking, make sure that they are properly identified. Some poisonous plants resemble common herbs.
  • DO NOT ALLOW CHILDREN to pick anything in the yard without your supervision. This rule should apply even for your garden vegetables and fruit.
Note the mottled red stem
Photo Credit C. Mayer
In addition to its toxicity, Pennsylvania's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) in its Fact Sheet says,
Poison hemlock may act as a pioneer species quickly colonizing disturbed sites and displacing natives during early successional series. The presence of C. maculatum degrades habitat quality and could indicate a management problem on an ecological preserve.
I think with all those undesirable characteristics, classifying this one as a weed is pretty easy.  If you have any suggestions for particular weeds that you would like to see covered in this series, feel free to mention them in the comments section.

Friday, May 25, 2012


I don't Rue the day I became acquainted with Rue.

Rue (Ruta graveolens) is an herb with feathery green-blue leaves, and yellow flowers blooming in late spring.  Historically, it was a symbol of sorrow and repentance, and was called the herb-of-grace in medieval times.  It was considered a reliable defense against witches and warding off the plague in the middle ages, but I don't think there is much scientific evidence to back those claims up.

The leaves are tiny and deeply-lobed, and look good as a background in any garden.  I planted a row in the back of my herb garden, and often congratulate myself for my great landscape sense...

The flowers, five yellow points, appear in early spring and last for a month or two.

Rue is a great looking garden plant, but I don't advise using it for anything other than a great looking garden plant.  It can be poisonous, causes severe gastric distress when ingested, and the oil on the leaves can cause a severe skin rash in some people.  But still, doesn't it look great?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Victory Garden 2012 Log - May 21

New This Year - Celery

It was "get as much planted before it starts to rain" day this week.  Not wanting to wait another week, we went all out and planted tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash, sweet potatoes, pole beans and cucumbers.  No till plot got the same stuff in, also.

No Till Area was Planted, too

Pole Beans Going In

Raised Bed Coming Along Nicely
We also had a short discussion about mulches, various kinds and their advantages.  We will be mulching with 2 layers of newspaper and straw to keep the weeds down, retain moisture, and keep soil pathogens from easily spreading to the plants.

Peonies are Blooming

Garden peonies are an herbaceous perennial that grow 2 to 4 feet tall and enjoy full sun (or a little shade).

Mine are all in bloom, from white with a yellow center to pink to red to burgundy in color.  They are easy to grow and will provide years of great color this time of year.  They don't like to be disturbed, so pick your location well.  The best time to plant is the fall, they need winter cold in order to flower (so you don't see them down south too often).  They like well-drained soil, and protection from strong winds (neither of which mine have, and they are doing great...).

The buds burst open into large (4" to 6") double flowers.

They have a tendency to fall over because they are so  heavy when they bloom, so stakes or frames can help if you like.

Peonies aren't bothered by many pests.  If they only set a few flowers after the first couple years, its time to divide them and give them some more room.  Divide a clump carefully into pieces with 3 to 5 eyes and a good set of roots.

When the flowers fade, remove the flower and leave as much foliage as possible, so the plant can prepare for next year.  In the fall, after a hard frost, cut the stems down to within 3" of the ground, and then wait for next spring!

I  have 8 plants, set 2 feet apart, and they fill up their space in the garden every year with very little care.  You can enjoy them without knocking yourself out caring for them.  PS - don't cut a lot of the blooms for cut flowers.  By cutting the blooms before they are faded, you're restricting the number of blooms you'll see next year.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Gass Garden Stone Wall

Stone Wall around Vine Maple
With all the activity surrounding the Plant Sale, I completely missed the building of the rock wall around the newly planted Vine Maple in the Gass Garden.  Cindy informs me that MG Steve Gray built it, with MG Niles Phillips who was instrumental in securing the stone.  I agree wholeheartedly with Cindy who writes:
I think it anchors the garden aesthetically and ties in nicely with the Gass House stone.


Victory Garden 2012 Log - May 14

MG Gary Ankney
Since it was raining hard, week 4 again found us in the Master Gardener Club House.  Gary Ankney discussed vertical gardening, the practice of growing up, not out, for more vegetables in less space.  A good source for this is Derek Fell's book, Vertical Gardening.  Here is an article from Organic Gardening magazine that shows how to build a bamboo obelisk as a support structure.

The next three pictures are from Gary's summer garden, copied with permission from his Facebook page.

Melon growing on a Trellis

Tomato Cages (one inverted onto the other) supporting
a winter squash vine

Gary's favorite support structure is made of two tomato cages (the ones that are virtually useless for tomatoes) - one inverted onto the other - to build a support trellis for squash, melons and cucumbers.

Cukes in the Background - Winter Squash in the Foreground
Gary also discussed crop rotation, to grow specific groups of vegetables so they don't return to the same spot for at least three years. This practice helps control pests and diseases, control weeds, and enhances soil fertility and structure.

MG Linda Horst

Since it was still raining, Linda Horst demonstrated container vegetable gardening; containers, potting mixes, planting, fertilizers, and watering.  More fact sheets on the subject here and here.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Franklin County Master Gardeners Plant Sale

Franklin County - I hope you got a few new plants you will enjoy for years to come:

The crowd was big and friendly...

The gourd - bird - houses were unique...

Laurie - you did an outstanding job organizing us, assigning us, exhorting us, encouraging us, and yelling at us!!!

Next year's chairpersons, John and Georgia, kept smirking because they knew they were well-prepared...

The oregano kept moving on out...

And the crowds kept coming...thanks for your support, and let us know if you want any day lilies!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Get Your Garden On, Part 2

Our own Steve Bogash, Tom Butzler, and Professor Mike Orzelek of Penn State host a call in show on gardening.

Part 1 can be accessed here.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Stinkbug Call-In Show - PCNTV

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug
Picture courtesy of Steve Jacobs, Penn State University

You can watch a call-in show dedicated to the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (Halyomorpha halys) recorded on May 8th at PCN TV, the cable access channel that acts like a CSPAN for Pennsylvania by clicking here.

The guests of the May 8th Program are from Penn State's  Entomology Department, Professors Steve Jacobs, John Tooker, and Shelby Fleischer.

Penn State, along with other land grant Universities, has been awarded a grant to further study this pest.

Old Fashioned Bleeding Hearts

Fringed Bleeding Heart Dicentra eximia

While researching for appropriate links for the specimens in the Gass Garden post below, I noticed many of the potential sites to select for Dicentra spectabilis, referred to the plant as “Old Fashioned” Bleeding Heart.  It makes sense since the plant was first introduced from Japan in the early 1800’s and has been a staple in shade gardens ever since.  Here are some pictures from my shade garden taken a few weeks ago during the last week in April.  I have both the native fringed bleeding heart, Dicentra eximia, as well as the Japanese one.  All were acquired from fellow Master Gardeners, either as gifts or from the plant sale.  Enjoy.

Old Fashioned Bleeding Heart Dicentra spectabilis

Dicentra eximia with another shade garden must, Wood Poppy, Stylophorum diphyllum

Monday, May 14, 2012

Victory Garden 2012 Log - May 7th

MG Iris Masters on Seeds
Our class on May 7th centered on choosing vegetables to plant from seed, and a discussion from Master Gardener Iris Masters about the information contained on a packet of seeds.  Here's a good fact sheet on the subject.  One piece of information, for example, usually included on seed packets, is the plant's life cycle, whether it is an annual, biennial, or perennial.

Cultivating the Onions

 During garden time, we cultivated the onions.

Learning How to Plant Beans
 We were instructed on the depth and spacing of planting the beans in the tilled garden and the no-till garden.

Planting a Double Row of Bush Beans

Then planted them.
Raised Bed Sprouts
The seeds in the raised beds have germinated and are looking good.

Philadelphia Master Gardeners Blog

I added a link to the Philadelphia Master Gardener's Blog to the Other Blog Links page.  They also pointed out that there is a Blog List for Pennsylvania Master Gardener's here.  I've requested that our blog be added to it.  You can also find us from the College of Ag Sciences Blog list here.

Update: 5/16/12 - We're now on the list.  Also, if you go to the Master Gardener page of the Penn State Extension Web Site for Franklin County, there are Facebook and Blog links to our respective Facebook Page, and back to here.  The links are located on the right side of the page just under "Connect With Us".

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Spring at Mary's Place

MG Mary Crooks sends these pictures of Spring activity at her place.

Oriental Poppy - Papaver orientale

Close up of the Poppy

Robin's Nest - Getting Ready

These fellas are further along

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Victory Garden 2012 Log - April 23 and 30th

Too Cold and Wet to go Outside on Opening Day
New feature, folks.  MG Georgia Townsend has agreed to take pictures and write up a brief summary of the topics covered in the weekly Victory Garden class that I will hopefully turn into a timely blog post here.  "Timely" is subject to interpretation and scheduling, but it should show up as a regular feature.

Week one, April 23rd.

About 25 eager gardeners met in the Master Gardner Clubhouse for our first Victory Garden session.  It was cold and rainy and no day to be out in the garden.  But we met everyone and discussed what we would be doing every Monday morning for the next several months.  Also had an opportunity to provide introductions and offer a brief explanation why we were there.

Week 2 - April 30th.

"No Till" Area
For the educational component, Fulton County Master Gardener Gary Ankney introduced the concept of "No Till" Gardening, following the recommendations of Dr. Lee Reich in his book "Weedless Gardening."  Here's a Mother Earth News article by Dr. Reich on the topic.  Much of this technique was pioneered by Ruth Stout, also known as "The Mulch Queen."

A section of the Victory Garden has been set aside this year to put into practice the "No Till" approach.

Raised Bed Prepped and Planted
Elsewhere, we put lettuce, herbs, beets, swiss chard, etc.  in the two raised beds, and the last of the onion sets and potatoes were planted and the rows were cultivated.  

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Garden Inspired Spring Meal

I harvested radishes, asparagus, lettuce, spring onions, and herbs dill, cilantro, parsley, and oregano for a weekend meal.

Garlic, Oregano,Chopped Spring Onion Leaves, and Container Citrus for a Vinaigrette

Vinaigrette (Lemon Juice, Garlic, Herbs, Salt and Pepper, Mustard and Olive Oil)
Blanched Asparagus

I blanched the asparagus in boiling water, moved to iced water to stop cooking, and set aside to dry.

Disappointing to learn that the purple color dissolves in water.

Same thing happens with the purple string beans and the purple color of scarlet runner beans.  It's because the anthocyanins that give them the purple/red color are water soluable, so disappear when boiled.

Reheated in olive oil, seasoned and served when the chicken was ready.

Chicken Thighs Sauteed in Butter, with Preserved Tomatoes

2011 Preserved Tomatoes

Seared the chicken in butter, covered in a quart of preserved tomatoes from the 2011 harvest, and finished in the oven for a 1/2 hour or so.


Salad from the garden.

Pre-Dinner Cocktail

Ready to Serve