Friday, March 29, 2019

In a Garden of April Fools

A close-up of bare tree branches with light & dark blue colored circular evil eye amulets. Photo by Hulki Okan Tabak.
An Evil Eye Tree - native to Cappadocia, Nevsehir, Turkey
Ah, Spring! – a time for love, bountiful blossom displays and,inevitably, April Fools’ Day. This quasi-holiday has traditional roots in Old World Europe but is now celebrated in places as far-flung as India and Brazil. Although the exact reason for pranking on April 1st have been blurred by history, many possible origin stories point to celebrations of the Vernal Equinox and end-of-winter festivities as far back as the Celts and Romans. Spring planting traditions come into play at this time of year and many people believe that April Fools’ Day speaks to the foolishness of planting in the unpredictable weather of early spring.

Multi-colored tulips on display. Photo by John Mark Smith
Close-up of brown Lichops succulent plants interspersed with brown stones and a couple white and yellow flowers.
Which ones are the Lichops?
A surprising number of pranks and hoaxes have grown out of the gardening and botanical worlds over the years. Perhaps, in part, because there are many plants who are tricksters in their own right. Take the Lithops, for example: Also known as “Living Stones”, these southern African succulents have evolved to look like just another rock in the ground (a “no need to look here” for any herbivore searching for lunch). Then there are the Fooled You Peppers: These fascinating little green gems have the look and flavor of jalapeƱos without any of the heat. This is a wonderful thing for people like me who cannot handle the heat. I also think there is a juicy prank in here somewhere (like: I’ll bet you I can eat 15 of these jalapeƱos without stopping” kind of thing). Here is an article from the Smithsonian with more interesting prankster plants and here is a link to my blog from last October about strange plants (who are also mostly fakers).

Black and white picture of three people standing before a tree with spaghetti noodles hanging down. One woman is on a ladder, and a man and woman standing at the foot. He is holding a round flat basket.
1957 Spaghetti Harvest in Ticino, Switzerland
As I mentioned before, plants and gardening seem to find their way into April Fools’ pranks quite a bit. One famous example is the 1957 BBC presentation of “Spaghetti - Harvest in Ticino”. In this bit, their news program, Panorama, “reported” on the bumper crop of spaghetti that grew from spaghetti trees due to mild spring weather. A well-known war correspondent narrated the piece with the utmost gravitas, giving it extra credibility. Many people were fooled, of course, and some even tried to book holidays to go see the crop for themselves. This is a perfect example of how something that is clearly absurd can be said with enough sincerity that people will believe it.

Maple trees with orange leaves on a forest lane strewn with fallen orange foliage.
Beautiful Maple Trees
In 2005, another legitimate news source, NPR (National Public Radio) perpetrated its own tree-related hoax. As heard on their program All Things Considered, they claimed that Maple trees in New England were exploding and causing serious injuries and even death. According to this fanciful report, the trees were exploding due to a decrease in maple sugar consumption, which meant that the trees were not being tapped and had built up sugar pressure. Apparently, this this hoax has stuck around; here is an article where they are still trying to debunk the myth in 2015. Hear the NPR program here. 

An ad with a picture of bananas that have the texture of pineapples.
It seems like people these days are willing to believe anything can be hybridized; go on the internet and you can find hundreds, if not thousands, of stories of fantastical hybridized living things. While there are amazing hybrids, the pinana is not one of them. This banana-pineapple hybrid was the 2009 April Fools prank of the British supermarket chain Waitrose. Although it’s not a real fruit hybrid, I think they should get on this and create it for real – it sounds delicious.

Google has even got into the garden hoax business with their 2017 “announcement” of a smart device for your yard – the Google Garden Gnome. The video is really funny – it almost makes me wish this were real.

Black and white picture of a brunette woman in a white dunce cap seated and holding an April Fool sign.I have not participated in any April Fools’ pranks since my brother and I decided it was a good idea to interchange the sugar and salt on our kitchen table. Soon after our father sat down for his morning coffee we discovered that it was a really bad idea. That said, after all these years I am willing to present my own botanical hoax, albeit in a halfhearted way - I am going to see if anyone wants to bite on the Evil Eye Tree that I posted at the top of this blog. Would there be someone out there who believes that it really grows evil eye amulets?

If you are an unrepentant prank-puller, here are some ideas for you. I hope that you can find something fun and new to do, but do so cautiously - not everyone will think they are as funny as you do!

Submitted by Pam

Friday, March 22, 2019

Make Your Garden Much More Than What You Plant

A wooden table in the foreground with flowers and a metal watering can on it . In the background are lights in the tree and a light-colored house with the windows lit up.

This week I came across a delightful book, The Cocktail Hour Garden by C. L. Fornari
A clear sparkling liquid in a glass and a lime on a wooden table with lemon, lights and a clear vase with flowers in the background.
Although this book is chock-full of beautiful pictures, clever ideas and delicious-sounding drink recipes, it's the over-arching theme that grasped my attention and imagination. Fornari advocates for taking some time at the end of the workday to put down your devices and sit outside and just relax in your garden, either with other people or as some alone-time. Refreshing alcoholic beverages are optional, of course; but there are some really interesting plant-infused libations that you really owe it to yourself to try. There may even be some that have ingredients you can directly source from your yard. The point is that a yard or garden should be not be seen as a set of chores or just as a food resource, but instead should be actively enjoyed in and of itself. It doesn't matter if your outdoor area is expansive or small, an important way to get maximum enjoyment from it is to design and plant for your specific taste and how you want to utilize the space. As you begin or finalize your plans for this year, consider the following:

Black couches with lime green cushions under a black perugula in a walled patio area. The are plants in beds along the wall and growing in circles on the wall.
Think outside the box- Most of us would not wear dated clothing or use a computer from 1980, but we give little thought to updating our landscaping. Get rid of the shrubs-around-the-foundation-and-lawn-to-the-curb model and experiment with shape color, and plants that are new to you. Here are some excellent suggestions for starting a new garden design or renewing the one you have.

Green plants growing in containers along a purple wall .You be you - It pays to remember that your garden is your creation and that means you can grow, plant, paint or embellish whatever and however you want. Want to grow just white flowers? Grow just white flowers! Want to paint your patio floor? Here’s a video that shows how. Want to grow up a brightly painted wall? Do it! Whatever pleases you most and adds to your enjoyment should be what you choose to do.

A patio with white walls and plants in blue pots growing up and down all around the place.Create dimension - Use walls, tree branches, staircases and hangers to create a multi-layered growing environment that envelopes you in its beauty. This will give your eyes a variety of scenes to feast on as you relax with your favorite beverage.

Year-round enjoyment - To keep your garden glorious and accessible throughout the seasons, it’s time to move away from short-lived seasonal blooms and embrace plants(or even a series of plants)  that are long-lasting. Year-round gardening is a win-win; you have continual beauty and/or bounty and our valuable pollinators will have a food source week after week. With the addition of cooling fountains and cozy fire features, you will have an all-season backyard retreat.

A sepia-toned picture of a woman sitting on the ground in a small teepee with plates of food on the rug around her.
Not all walls are bad - The addition of shades, privacy walls and curtains can delineate and glamorize a specific part of your yard. They can also give you additional growing options by providing shade where you want it. Add a rug to the mix and you have outdoor lounging at its best.

A multicolored hummingbird perched on pink fuzzy flowers with green stems.Bird watching, anyone? – If you are a bird lover, but are unable to get away to appreciate these flying treasures, lure them to your yard instead. Designing a bird-friendly garden need not be complicated, but the various species are geographically and seasonally specific. The Audubon Society is a great source of information if you don’t know where to start. Here in southern Arizona we are lucky to have an abundance of hummingbirds and people come from around the world to see them. Hummingbirds are in everyone’s yard here, intentional plantings or not.

A round wooden door in a hillside with flowers and a table and chairs in front of it.
Perhaps you want a Hobbit garden.
Critters in the garden – Watching the walking and crawling creatures that inhabit your garden is not only fun and fascinating, it can give you a very good idea how healthy the environment you’ve created is. However, there are some inherent drawbacks in planting for wildlife as this often means you are simply supplying food for them. Gardeners everywhere know what a cute bunny can do to a vegetable patch. Here in southern Arizona most people know that javelinas love pumpkins (see them at work on one here) and no one wants to invite them to any party. Check out what Nathaniel Wheelwright, author of The Naturalist’s Notebook has to say about all this here.

Get a little country: If you enjoy a cowboy or country aesthetic and/or you want to try something inexpensive and environmentally conscious, consider a straw bale garden. This alternative to container growing has great potential for areas that have little to no soil but need a little pizzazz (like along a curb or driveway). The possibilities are literally only limited to your imagination.

Two children facing away from the camera on to wooden chairs on a green lawn.Address problems ahead of time: Many common garden problems can be stopped before they begin. For instance, you can apply weed barriers before landscaping, and choose plants with an eye to pest control. You can have it all - a beautiful garden that is easy to maintain.

I’ve given you many idea trails to explore, but while you are planning your garden don't forget that the bst idea is to simply enjoy your garden. Working hard to create an area of relaxation seems just wrong. So, step back and slide your way into this. And remember, sometimes less is best and all you really need is a comfy chair and the right company.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Submitted by Pam

Friday, March 15, 2019

Some Things to Talk About at a St. Patrick’s Day Party

A tree growing from the side of a grass covered hill by a path leading to the ocean
Beautiful County Mayo
As the proud granddaughter of a woman who emigrated  from County Mayo, every year I find myself telling people about the coolness of Ireland and its history. Beyond the green beer (not Irish) and corned beef (not Irish), there lies an ancient landscape filled with beauty, mystery and amazing people. Here are some tidbits I’d like to share:

St. Patrick in flowing green robes and a tall white hat carrying a bible and a staff. There are shamrocks with white blooms at this feet.
St. Patrick was a slave:
St. Patrick (real name: Maewyn Succat) was born in Britannia about 380 AD to a family of some status. He lived comfortably until age 16, when he was captured by Irish marauders and taken to Ireland. Once there, he was sold to an Irish chieftain who put him to work as a shepherd and that’s what he did for the next six years. I’ve been in Ireland during winter in the comfort of a 21st century life and it was harsh; I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be out in it during the 4th century. Eventually, St. Patrick escaped back to Britannia, where he studied for the priesthood before returning to Ireland in 433 to convert the pagan people that had enslaved him. He is often depicted with a shamrock because he used this common, 3-leafed plant to illustrate the Holy Trinity to the native Irish.

Interior view of the white arches, goldtone pews and stained glass windows of Whitefriar Street Church in Dublin, Ireland
The interior of Whitefriar Street Church, Dublin
A holiday mash-up: There is another saint that inspired a holiday who has ties to Ireland: St. Valentine. Although St. Valentine was executed by the Romans in the 3rd century, an enterprising priest managed to acquire his bones in 1835. They are now interred in Whitefriar Street Church in Dublin. This has become a popular pilgrimage site for the lovelorn and love-struck. As is the case with ancient artifacts, not everyone agrees to the authenticity of these bones, but Dublin seems to have a pretty solid case.

A tall stone round tower with a cemetery and trees at its feet and a hillside in the background.
Glendalough Round Tower, Coutny Wicklow, Ireland
Irish Round Towers
: Ireland is an exceedingly ancient land; it has been inhabited for at least 9,000 years (some say 12,500). It is impossible to move through this island without
experiencing this deep history. Castles abound, as do ruins of all kinds. But, there are some structures that are both extremely old and in extremely good condition – the round towers. There are 65 of these tall (some are over 100 ft. tall) stone structures sprinkled throughout Ireland. They are believed to have been built sometime between the 7th and 10th century. But, no one knows why they were built. Theories abound, of course, including the idea that they are paramagnetic energy receptors. Whatever they are meant to be, they remain as beautiful reminders of past human efforts.

A grey Irish wolfhound on standing on its back paws with its front paws on a red-headed woman in a black dress. There are leaves on the ground and water and trees in the background.

Wolves and Wolfhounds
: Humans have been in Ireland a very long time, but wolves were there long before any of them. There have been wolf remains dated to 34,000 BC. They came early and stayed until the last one was killed in 1786 (300 years after they were killed off in Europe). In the years in between, they became a part of legend and myth, as well as a daily danger to humans who encroached on their forest. There are many accounts of them feasting on the leftovers of a battlefield or an unlucky passerby (St. Patrick, no doubt, had his run-ins with wolves). Ireland even became known as “Wolf Land”. It makes complete sense that out of this bounty of wolves, the Irish developed the Irish Wolfhound. It was already an established breed in 391 A.D., when one was taken to Rome. This massive beast can stand up to 7 ft. tall on its hind legs and was bred as a war dog and wolf killer. This ferocity, however, has been bred out of them and modern Irish Wolfhounds have a gentle and calm disposition. There is an Irish proverb that says: “Gentle when stroked; fierce when provoked”. But, that may refer to the human Irish as well.
The front of an old building with multiple windows, painted yellow on top and rose-colored on the bottom floor.There are white columns on the bottom facade and cars in the foreground.

Old school pub: The oldest pub in the world is Sean’s Pub, smack in the middle of Ireland in Athlone, County Roscommon. Still thriving today, it was opened in 900 AD! I’m sorry I missed it while I was in Ireland; it will be on the list for my next visit.

Did an Irishman “discover” America?: Many people believe that St. Brendan (461-577 AD), from County Kerry was the first European to see North America. That’s approximately 500 years before the Vikings and 1,000 years before Columbus!

The green, white and organe flag of the Republic of Ireland on a white pole against a blue sky with white clouds.The true colors of Ireland: Most people (in America, anyway) think “Green” when they think of Ireland, and it is called the “Emerald Isle” for good reason. But there are other colors that have deep meaning to the Irish. Orange has been a symbol of Protestantism in Ireland since the time of William of Orange (1650-1702). Over the years, green became the color of the Catholics. When the Irish Free State (now known as the Republic of Ireland) gained its independence from England in 1921, they adopted a flag that has green and orange with white in the middle to symbolize the hoped-for peace between the two religions. Like orange, blue is not a color that most Americans associate with Ireland, but it was the original color linked to St. Patrick. In fact, the official “St. Patrick’s Blue” is a lovely sky blue.

Surprising Irish heritage: Many millions of Americans can claim some Irish heritage (thanks to the estimated 4.5 million people who immigrated between 1820-1930). Some notable examples: Muhammad Ali, whose great-grandfather left County Clare in the 1860’s and married a free African-American woman in Kentucky, and Barak Obama, whose ancestor fled the famine in
Moneygall, County Offaly in the 1850’s.

President Barack Obama in a dark suit and white shirt drinking a glass of dark Guinness beer. There is another grey-haired man also drinking in the background.Guinness: This one thing that is as beloved in Ireland as it is in America. Back on December 31, 1759, Albert Guinness signed a lease that may be the longest running ever. He agreed to pay 45 Irish pounds a year for 9,000 years! It’s a good thing that it’s well-loved lager! In case you were wondering, here is a video on how to properly drink a pint.

A green sharmrock on a black background with the words, "Erin Go Bragh Ireland Forever" in green surrounding the shamrock.I hope that all of this adds to your understanding and enjoyment of St. Patrick’s Day. We Irish-Americans have come a long way since my grandmother’s time, when the Irish were often treated despicably. We owe it to our ancestors to honor the homeland and it’s traditions on this grand day.

Submitted by Pam

Friday, March 8, 2019

Backyard Assassins - Assassin Bugs, Zelus renardii

What Are They?

Assassin Bug Up Close
They may look like kissing bugs, but they aren’t! Assassin Bugs are garden predators in the family Reduviidae. They come in an assortment of sizes, shapes and colors ranging from the large, ridge backed wheel bugs to the milkweed assassin bugs (Zelus longipes) dressed for Halloween. The common thread running through them all is their immense appetite for other insects, particularly the plant-feeding kind.

Gardener’s Note: If you look closely, assassin bug egg clusters can be found near food sources laid on leaves and branches.

How Do They Work?

A Wheel Bug Showing Off
Assassin bugs pin prey with their strong front legs and use a “beak” (rostrum) to pierce them, then inject a mixture of digestive enzymes and venom. This noxious concoction liquefies their prey's innards making a bit of a bug slurpee. The same burly front legs used for pinning are coated in a sticky resin that allows these backyard assassins to trap pests without escape, saving them for a later meal. Nimble and hungry, assassin bugs both ambush and actively hunt for food, making them a versatile beneficial predator in gardens and farms. Similar to Minute Pirate Bugs (Orius insidiosus), assassin bugs have a tendency to kill for the sake of killing instead of stopping when they are full. Just what we want as pest-abhorring gardeners. View a video of an assassin bug hunting here (video credit: Smithsonian Channel).

Why Use Them?

"Please don't interrupt my meal. Thank you kindly."
The leafhopper assassin bug gives gardeners and growers a multi-tool predator in the growing area. They gleefully feed at all life stages on most garden pests including aphids, leafhoppers, thrips, small caterpillars and mealybugs. In addition to their broad prospective menu, assassin bugs live for up to two months and reproduce rapidly, making them ideal for continued control of a target pest. If you don't want to use pesticides, assassin bugs will give you a hard working organic defense against your garden foes.

Our assassin bugs (Zelus renardii) are reared locally at our Catalina insectary north of Tucson. They are available online or for in store pickup in 250 count egg clusters. 

- Contributed by Sterling N.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Soil Amendments: When You Know Your Soil Needs Something….

An old brown church in a field of green plants in red dirt at sunset. Unnamed Road,Palmital, Brazil. Photo by Sergio Souza

The time is rapidly approaching when gardeners have to ask what it’s going to take to build the spring garden they want. Before you can grow plants, you need to grow the soil. There is almost always something that can be done to optimize the soil early in the season for your raised beds, garden plots or container plants. In order to do that, you need to take a good look at what your soil is like before planting. Some good questions to ask are:

    Blue garden spade and black dirt next to a pot. Photo by Neslihan Gunaydin
  • Is it compacted? 
  • Is it too acidic or alkaline? 
  • Does it have all the nutrients my plants need 
  • Has it become hydrophobic? 
  • Have I introduced beneficial microorganisms to help me along the way?

All of these are valid questions and should be part of your pre-planting checklist. If you need it, you can find the answers to or help with these questions right in your area. Ask at a local county extension office run by the Department of Agriculture, a Master Gardener (also part of the national extension program), universities and colleges, local gardening clubs or neighborhood nurseries. The expertise of people growing right where you are (especially those prolific ones!) can’t be overestimated.

Green plants growing in red dirt. Photo by Jens JohnssonAnother option is a simple soil test. We offer several do-it-yourself options as well as a soil analysis done by professionals. Test kits will take the guesswork out of the soil analysis problem and ease the minds of all but the most worrisome of gardeners.

Once you have an idea of where your soil’s at quality-wise, you’ll know how to proceed. If you don’t need much added to get where you want, it might be time to look at soil amendments instead of fertilizer mixes (which make a stronger punch). There are lots and lots and lots of soil amendments to choose from, here are some popularly used and proven options:
Compost – a great all-round addition to soil. It will revitalize depleted soil by adding organic matter and microbes, which in turn will speed up the decomposition of other organic matter and encourage microbial life to flourish in the amended soil. Our ARBICO Organics™ Compost Plus is also high in nitrogen, if that is what you are looking for.
A close-up of a man's hands as he cleans them of dirt. He is wearing a green tank top and standing in the forest. Muddy Man photo by Eddie Kopp.Humic Acid – The benefits of Humic Acid are very similar to that of compost. The liquid form of Humic Acid, however can be easier to use than compost, especially when working in a small area and for indoor and container plants. The liquid will also get to the roots quicker than compost.
Earthworm Castings – This is an old-time favorite for good reason. Castings are full of the micronutrients and trace minerals that your soil craves. They also breakdown slowly for long-term benefits (and fewer applications) and reduced risk of nutrient burn. While castings do their work in the soil, they are improving the soil structure, which reduces transplant shock and helps to buffer pH. Earthworm Castings contain chitinase, which is a natural compound that helps the plants fight soil-dwelling diseases and pests. 

Looking up at an apartment building with blue windows & white balconies full green trees and shrubs. Photo by Chris Barbalis.
Bosco verticale, Milan, Italy. Photo by Chris Barablis
Kelp Meal – It’s all about the nutrition when it comes to Kelp Meal. Bursting with amino acids, vitamins and trace minerals, it feeds the soil well to get it healthy. This well-fed soil welcomes organic matter and microbial life and is much better at retaining water.
Minerals – Many people go straight to a mineral to get minerals for their soil. Azomite and Soft Rock Phosphate fall into this category. They are packed with minerals that leach into the soil over time to provide dynamic and long-lasting benefits. In the case of Andesite, your garden may even get an electrical charge!

The bottom line is that nearly any soil (even balcony soil) can use a little amending and with the affordability of most amendments, why not give one a try? Since soil amendments generally work well with others, you can even try a combination.

Submitted by Pam & Sterling

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