Monday, December 31, 2012

New Year - New Song... what will I do differently

Its' the end of 2012. Wow - did this year go fast or what?

So what will be different for me in 2013? Lots I hope! I crave change and new adventures. So much to see and do... lots to explore.

My bucket list for 2013, things to see and do, in no particular order...
Palm - fanning out like fireworks explode

  • See a new Conservatory :)
  • See at least 6 new museums in Chicago (maybe...Glessner House, Clarke House, Chicago Cultural Center, Newberry)
  • Do a 5K and 10K and walk a Marathon (unofficial or official)
  • Give more tours at Chicago's Conservatory in Garfield Park and introduce as many people as possible to this gem.
  • Make plans to travel to China (execute in 2013 or 2014 or 2015...)

And of course - a few new years resolutions...
  1. Keep it green(ers) - Stop using grocery store bags (keep the reusable bags in the car, and take them in!); Put up a clothesline = dry outside as possible
  2. Get active - plan it and do it (Volunteering, blogging, exercising)
  3. Write more letters. A lost art that needs to be found.
  4. Read more books (target 12/year min)
  5. Do much better at staying in touch with family and friends - be available to new relationships, do more lunches and dinners (walks!!!)
OK - you can track me on these! I have good intentions - but will it be shown in the activities and decisions I make this year?  Are these resolutions or rough guidelines?  

Make no small plans...

Singing that year end song, Should auld acquaintance be forgot....
Happy New Year to you all!

Teresa Marie

Monday, December 17, 2012

Butternut Squash - skin irritant or natural beauty product?

It wasn't until a few months ago that I ever had fresh from the garden summer squash.  There was an upside and a downside. The upside was I started to dig in to learn a bit more about this plant and it's history plus I had discovered a plant that I enjoyed eating (I "hated" it as a child.)  On the downside I discovered some ill side-effects from handling the butternut squash - which also made me dig in and learn more. All of which I've summarized below. 

The summer squash, is native to Mexico and Central America. It was cultivated in the United States by Native Americans. Columbus and other early explorers introduced the squash back to Europe, where it became popular.  Most likely in part because of how long after harvest it would stay edible!  There are several hybrids and heirloom seeds out there. They seem to be pretty easy to grow (if you have the space.)

Butternut Squash that did me wrong :(
Butternut squash was the lucky squash that introduced me to how delicious and dangerous this plant can be. It's a summer squash of the "straight neck squash."  I didn't know that Butternut and Acorn squash can cause an allergic reaction when the squash skin is cut and exposed to the hands.  The first time I cut and peeled the squash within a few minutes I felt a tightness in the skin on my hands. I thought it was just the juice (or sap) from the squash drying on my hands. Then I realized that the flesh was staying moist after I cut it - it wasn't drying there, so probably not drying on my hands. Next I noticed that my hands were actually peeling from handling the squash. Revealing sensitive pink skin underneath.  Over the next few hours I scrubbed, rubbed, and picked at my hands until there were no more dry spots. It took a day or so for my hands to feel normal. 

Some articles say this is an allergic reaction (contact dermatitis - first noted in 1994 medical research), other articles say it is the sap drying on your hands. Too many online options - my experience, n=5, says something in the squash "juice" is a strong exfoliant, which may contribute to skin peeling.  The reaction to butternut or acorn squash, for me, was cracked skin, a sensation of "tightness" and "roughness." After the peeling completed my hands felt "sensitive" or "raw."  Applying lotion did not help me and even was a tad painful at that time.  Some people have developed blisters. I could definitely see this if peeling squash was your job! This reaction was immediate - within minutes of starting to handle the squash. By the next day, it was gone, creams and lotions felt great. Plus the skin on my hands was very soft :)

Please note - I also have contact allergies to cats, pine trees.... if that matters I don't know, just FYI.

I could not find any research that specifically identified the compound in the squash that triggers the reaction. There were studies that indicate it might be a reaction to a sugar or protein  Others that indicate that as the squash ages the potential for reaction declines (aging for weeks or months). This would make sense as the composition of the squash (in terms of sugars and proteins) would be changing as the fruit matures. Researchers conclude that the allergic contact dermatitis to the squash species Cucurbita moschata, including butternut squash, Kentucky field pumpkin, and calabaza pumpkin - can vary highly. The outer skin of the squash is not a trigger reaction so it's only cutting and handling the internal moist portions that are the problem. So it can be avoided. 

The best way to avoid squash sensitivity is to 

  1. Let the squash age a bit before you cut/prepare it
  2. Wear rubber or latex gloves while cutting the squash. 

It may seem strange - but I went for the gloves tonight as I prepared butternut squash. And there was no problems at all, no skin reaction. Just clumsy knife skills. Look at how stained the gloves were? Wow that would have been all over my hands.

Proper Butternut Squash Handling technique - Latex
Squash residue on gloves - great protection barrier

BTW - don't you just love the mushroom tiles in my kitchen (NOT!)

All the best - happy growing and cooking.

Today I can't get the sound of jingle bells out of my mind.

Teresa Marie

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Easy Propagation of Sedum Perrenials

If you love sedum - you can easily multiply your plants!
Easily Propagate Sedum Perennials

Showy sedum such as Autumn Joy, Autumn Fire Stonecrop,  'Postman's Pride', variegated foliage on "Frosty Morn",  'Brilliant', which has bright pink petals; and 'Stardust', which has silvery-pink flowers, can be used in containers, as ground cover, in rock gardens, borders and given as gifts!  

I bought my first showy sedum at the garden center. Debating the purchase price which was it something like $10-25/each! I brought one home and then discovered just how easy it is to propagate. Now take cutting from neighbors, trading for other plants, and using sedums in a variety of guerrilla garden projects. Showy Sedums are succulents - so the same principles apply from my prior post on propagating succulents  

In my cold climate garden, showy sedums are 18-24 inches tall, blooming in midsummer through autumn.  They require little maintenance and are fairly pest resistant. The old foliage/stems make good winter interest. The showy sedums die to the ground in winter then sprout back from its tuberous roots in spring.  

I've event taught preschoolers how to propagate sedum.  You can do it!  There are three propagation techniques which work well:
  1. Immersion
  2. Controlled Pot Growth
  3. Direct Garden Placement
  4. Division
In techniques 1- 3 you will need to take a cutting from a healthy sedum plant. I generally take a single stem of the subject sedum and cut it back to the ground. I can then cut this into 3-4 smaller pieces for propagation if desired.  No need to worry about using only the tip portion, although others will say to take only the soft tips of the sedum for propagation.  BTW many of these techniques also work really well on herbs


Sedum in water to force rooting
This technique requires a bit of a longer cutting.  I tend to take a piece which is 6 inches long. 

Remove leaves from the lower portion of the cutting - these would be submerged and could rot. 

Take the pieces of Autumn Joy you have prepared for propagation and place them in a cup or glass that is filled with water. Make sure that only the sedum stem in in the water ( no leaves.) 

Then place the glass in a warm spot with lots of light. 

Autumn Joy Rooting in Water 
Do not let the water dry out completely, and change it every few days.  In a weeks time your cutting will begin to root, and will sprout new growth.  Take a look at the pictures below.  You can keep the sedums in water for some time, eventually you should transplant outside. They can go into the ground, even in August-October. I try to put at least three of these little sprouts together. Once you do this, keep a good supply of water until the roots are established in the garden soil. I try to water every other day for 10-12 days.


Usually late in the summer I remember that I wanted to propagate more sedum.  I prepare the stems by cutting rather long sections ~ 6 inches and remove the leaves from the lower 3 inches.  Next I place regular potting soil with about 10% perlite into small pots. Place the sedum cutting into the pots.  
Sedum propagation from cuttings

Take care that there are no leaves buried into the soil.   Water the sedums periodically (they have dried out sometimes without ill-effect.)    

The original stem cutting will die back and new shoots will appear at the base of the plant  (see the little shoots at the right?)  

Keeping the sedum potted indoors all winter (in your in a cold climate).  If you place them outside in late fall, the tender shoots will die and not return.  Sometimes, while held indoors, the sedum shoots may die back all the way. Not to worry, in springtime they sprout back.  Watering in the winter should be only to keep the soil from getting rock hard - too much water will rot the baby plants/roots.

If you start cuttings in pots early enough in the summer, you should be able to place them directly in the garden after the shoots take off. If not, just see them come up in the pots in the spring and then place them outside. 


This technique is as easy as it sounds. It is best conducted in late Spring or Early Summer. Prepare the stems as previously described in cutting section above.  Prepare a space in the garden by lightening up the soil with some peat moss and maybe a little potting soil. 

Then take each stem and directly place it into the garden where you want the new plant to grow. I like to keep 5-6 inches of the stem viable and above ground, with 3 nodes below ground.  See picture on left below, the stick is the sedum, it's fall so there's not much color there. Water if there has not been any rain.  The roots will form and new growth will begin at the ground level.  The original stem may-or may-not survive.  Over a few years you will get a nice clump of new sedum (see picture on right below)

Note - if you try this technique late in the season the stem may root, but not put up new growth until springtime. A light pull on the sedum stem you placed in the ground, if met with any resistance, indicates that there are roots.

Autumn Joy stems in soil for Propagation
Two years later - nice new stand of sedum

4. DIVISION:   The last technique, as with many perennials  is to divide well established clumps into smaller groups and replant them. 
Sedums are found in North America (including Greenland), South America, Asia, Europe and Africa.  Showy sedums are native to China and Korea.  The popular 'Autumn Joy' (S.'Herbstfreude') hybrid has large, alternate leaves and blooms late in the season with large, pinkish-bronze flower clusters.  The esteemed British  Royal Horticultural Society gave 'Autumn Joy' sedum an Award of Garden Merit. I guess then we all wanted it!  Given how easy it is to propagate them - I hope you share your joy with friends! 

If you are in Chicagoland - email me for some cuttings to start your own sedums.

Happy Gardening!

Teresa Marie

PS check this more recent blog update to see how the cuttings grew over a few month period

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Vegetable Container Gardens - Growing Sweet Corn

I have often had the pleasure of teaching Container Garden classes across the Chicago area. Frequently I'm asked specifically about growing vegetables.  I too am a fan of fresh home-grown produce!  I just received my first seed catalog and I've already started planning for next year...I'm planing corn but not in rows. :) Planning what to grow and where is a key activity in a gardener's spring garden to-do list. BTW, here's my running spring garden check-list

Sweet Corn fresh from the garden
Families with children can use this as a great teaching moment. Kids get excited about growing edible plants. When my kids were younger they liked planting seeds, seeing them sprout, and watching plants and fruits/vegetables grow. It's even more fun when they recognize the seed as well as the edible result. 

Corn is one of the oldest and most hybridized edible plants. Corn as we know it today is the result of generations of careful cultivation.  For gardeners that means many choices - maybe too many. I look for something sweet or decorative/color and is a dwarf variety which will grow easier in a small space.

VARIETY:  Most seed companies offer dwarf corn varieties for container growing. I like to look for early varieties, and those under 6 ft tall. Yield is highly variable - bee sure to pick a variety that yields more than one ear per plant. This also helps with self pollination. Best results will come with more than 6-8 plants, planted densely. A larger grouping ensures complete pollination.  A few to consider, space saving varieties, Golden Bantam, Kandy Korn, Precocious, Strawberry popcorn, Early Sunglow, Trinity, Casino, Sugar Pearl, Tom Thumb Popcorn, On-The-Deck Sweet Corn 
CONTAINER: Corn roots typically have an effective depth of 12 inches, although in the field some roots can reach 2 feet deep. So in container gardens corn doesn't need a particularly large pot - a 24" container should be sufficient.  I like to use the half a wine barrel or tub as well! Gives a bigger harvest and has needed weight. A key consideration is the resulting height of the plants - a 4 - 7 Ft dwarf corn plant will be 5 - 9 Ft. high in the container.  It's a great accent piece and very architectural!  Yet think about container placement as well as wind protection!
CULTIVATION:   For corn, use standard potting soil and make sure to add lots of slow release fertilizer. Plant corn seeds about 4 inches apart, covering them with 1 inch of soil. When the sprouts are ~6 inches tall, thin to about eight inches apart.  Then on, make sure the corn has a good supply of food and water. Never let it completely dry out. Provide fertilizer once a week or bi-weekly. When the plants tassel, help them pollinate by gently shaking the stalks or hand pollinate if you have multiple varieties and then detassle the corn to prevent cross pollination.
WIND PROTECTION:  I've heard of three options for protecting corn, tall flowers and bulbs from bending over in high winds.  I've tried mounding and rebar options with good success.  If your corn does get knocked down, and if the stalks are sound - just prop it back up, pack the soil around it, and it should keep growing.
You don't need a field to enjoy sweet corn fresh!
  1. WEIGHT:  Add stones and other weight to the container to keep the container itself from blowing over (this will not stop the plant from blowing over however)
  2. MOUNDING: Just bank up some dirt around the bottom of the corn when it gets about 8 inches tall. Cover it about half way up the stalk. This will help keep the corn stable, grow a stronger root system and will "feed" the plant more nutrients. It can be challenging in a container, you may try pulling a fabric over the container (similar to the nylon mentioned in rebar) to keep the soil mounded.
  3. REBAR - This works best for raised beds, but could be modified for container groupings. Get 1/2" rebar that is about 4 ft long (longer for taller varieties). Pound rebar in each corner of your garden area (or edges of the container, works well with wine barrels) Plant the corn.  After it sprouts but before it gains real height, take nylon netting (Home Depot or Lowes) and stretch it tightly across the rebar. Position the nylon at 1.5'ft.and at  3' level (1/3 and 2/3 your corn height). The corn will grow through the netting. The rebar and netting provide support to prevent wind damage.

I'm now thinking about sweet corn with butter, corn bread, corn salad - and can't wait to get some fresh.  My grand father used to walk through the field and pull corn off the stalk and taste it raw! 

Save some seeds for the next year! Oh an if you are interested check out this blog post on growing herbs in containers.

Teresa Marie

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

World's Best Botanic Gardens

I'm making my Botanic Garden bucket list - this article on Huffington Post caught my eye.
Here's a list of 10 great botanic gardens around the world.

Naturally I am THRILLED that the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago, IL USA is on the list. I just adore this place --- and if you ever want to go, email me and I'm happy to arrange a behind the scenes tour for you!!!

The Gardens By The Bay - a new conservatory opening in Singapore looks simply amazing. From design to programs to just scale!

So many places to see. For now, I'm going back outside to toil in my own backyard (I sound like Dorothy from Wizard of Oz!)

Teresa Marie

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Clever Idea - Container Water Retention system on the cheap

Folks - Check out this blog post on the use of diapers (yup, diapers) as water retention additives to containers.  I have often looked at purchasing these polymer additives in the store. It can range from $13 - $49/pound! You know diapers are maybe $1 each.

The question though is what do you do with the diapers afterwards - I guess it's just garbage. Maybe too many of them in the landfill already...

Anyway, thought it was Cool! It appeals to the frugal gardener in me!

Today I noticed garlic and other spring perennials going crazy in my garden. Darn Climate Change! It does feel like Spring in Chicago. I'm reviewing seed catalogs and starting a landscaping class on Saturday! So excited to get a long range plan going.

Sign along!


Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Overwintering Tender Ornamental Grasses

I absolutely adore ornamental grasses - either in containers or planted in the garden. I have several hardy varieties - Zebra Grass and a Pampas grass. The latter that was a gift from my father which I divide every year and give away :)  I purchase several annual grasses each year - and this year decided to try to overwinter a few in containers over the winter. 

Here is the process I followed.  Just posting this now, since I'm starting to see some new growth in the containers so I'm sure the process will be successful. 

1) Get a good section of the grass and plant in containers with appropriate potting soil mixture. I did this about midway through the summer to allow them to grow into the pots. Also purchased a few grasses late in the season and did not plant them. Those are the ones in the photos. These were $20/each in springtime and only $3/each in the fall!  If you repot grasses make sure you don't pull any diseased stalks or stems. 

2) In late fall or early winter you need to prune the grass. I wanted to save the grass so I followed a process of a) tying up the grass b) then shearing off leaving only 1-2 inches above the crown.  Once I had cut it down I then looked through to carefully remove damaged stems or stalks.  

Purchased Fall - 2011
Annual Grass - Prep for Shearing

3) Place the containers indoors near a light source. Here I put mine in a basement window with other plants I'm over wintering.  I make sure to water these regularly to keep the roots alive. I am not applying any fertilizer now. I don't want them to get too big right now - I think it will be difficult to have them grow full and lush with so little light. After 2 months, there are new shoots growing. In the spring I'll start to hit it with fertilizer and then move outdoors.  

Overwintering Annual Grass Indoors
Decorating with Grass!

As an added bonus - I saved the top of the grass that was sheared off - and used it as decoration inside! Adding a nice natural element into my eclectic room!

Happy Gardening!

Teresa Marie