Field of Science

Leave the leaves? Not good gardening advice

TPP has seen three articles already (but failed to note their sources) that tell people to leave the leaves on their lawn rather than rake them.  This only works if you have very few leaves or want to transition your lawn to a woodland.  This is being done in our gardens in at least two places, purposely, and a lot of woodland plants occupy what passes for our lawn.  A thick layer of leaves, whole or chopped, would kill what little grass remains. The leaves in our lawns are confluent; they form a continuous layer inches deep, and more in some places.  So many leaves that a leaf gathering fence and a leaf capturing net are put up to keep tons of leaves out of our lily pond.  All the leaves are raked out of most of the gardens, and then vacuumed up and shredded, and reapplied if mulching is wanted.  This used to be done by yours truly with a machine called a Billy Goat; it was a beast, hard to pull start, and used about an 8 cubic foot bag, which was quite heavy.  And it was pricey to rent!  The right shoulder would complain the next day, and it was justified. Then Mrs. Phactor found a lawn service guy, who would do all that leaf work and it only cost $40-50 more than just the Billy Goat.  This did not take a lot of thought.  Except this year the leaves have been snowed on, and rained on, to keep them wet and matted down.  Fortunately the net was pulled off the pond and emptied of several cubic feet of water logged leaves before this latest wintery episode.  This takes the entire Phactor gardening squad, both of us, and then it was almost too heavy for the net.  But neither of us fell in, so that was good.  The next task will be to put fencing around all the young trees and shrubs to keep the rabbits from browsing on them.  Hopefully the weather will produce a couple of warmer days before the end of November.

More fabulous foliage - sumac

The tree color is just about done, and if we get the predicted snow, the fall color will really be finished.  At this point some shrubs remain colorful, hamamelids: witch hazels, fothergillas, parrotias. Another colorful group are sumacs, largely unruly shrubs, not suitable for most lawns or gardens.   This is a cultivar of Rhus typhina, a staghorn sumac.  It turns a wonderful orange color, but that doesn't compensate for its really problem, which is sending up new shoots along roots.  If left alone it will form large clones, some of which can be seen along interstate highways in our area.  Ours is fighting with bottle brush buckeyes for space and the greater shade tolerance of the latter seems to be the deciding factor.  But hey it is colorful.  

Electrical compatibility expected


The Phactors decided that we would replace our ancient chest freezer while it was still an option, rather than a necessity to do so.  A couple of big box stores had little to offer so a locally owned store was a welcome change of pace, and after arranging the purchase, the next day delivery was set up. Getting either a new or old chest freezer up out of our basement is no small task especially as the entry has been greatly altered since the old freezer was brought in.  Good to know it's still possible to get such things in and out of the house, and very glad younger backs were doing the heavy lifting.  While setting up the new freezer, one of the movers picked up the plug and got a puzzled look, and asked TPP, "How does this work?"  A examination of the problem  did not take long, and a pile of still frozen food was waiting for a new frozen haven.  Fortunately TPP had an adapter that made this plug compatible with the 3 prong outlets.  Does this look familiar to any of my foreign readers?  Looks generally European to TPP, and no idea how the local appliance store got such a model.  Although the food remained frozen, a next day freezer exchange was arranged with proper electrical compatibility.  You wonder how such things happen.  Just lucky about having this adapter; enough foreign house guests that made this necessary because in our giant bag of plug adapters accumulated over the years, all are to adapt our 3 prong plugs to some other configuration, and this was 2 prong to 3, not usually needed here abouts.  Sales clerk & store manager were quite perplexed and not about to offer next day delivery to Europe.

Friday Fabulous Foliage - golden days



Our garden's fall color is quite good this year, although quite late as it is now November.  Our gardens are largely in the shade of a couple of quite large sugar maples, and the morning sun suffuses the area with a golden light.  Other specimens brighten up dark spaces such as this Japanese maple.  While there have been a couple of nights with frosty temperatures, there have still been no hard freezes so far, but the color display will not last for long.  It was warm enough with a light jacket to enjoy a cocktail out on the patio just to enjoy the colors.  A few things are still in flower, the monk's hood, a wayward witch hazel, an anemone. 

Friday Fabulous Fruit - diversity on display


Squashes, pumpkins, and the like belong to one of only 4 species of Cucurbita.  There is a surprising amount of diversity on display in terms of fruit color, size, and shape for just 4 species, and TPP is not certain that all 4 species are displayed here.  Still in makes for a pretty eyeful. There may also be some gourds included too.  Here's the link to Homestead Seeds should you want to grow some of these.

What's up with these acorns?


A person walked into my place of business handed me these acorns and wanted to know, what's up with these acorns?  The short answer is nothing is up with them, they are the way they are supposed to be.  However the tree that produces these acorns is not very common so not too many people have ever seen one.  This is an overcup oak, Quercus lyrata, and it is native to wetlands in SE North America, but people tend to not plant them where they will do well and as a result they often look chlorotic.  The distinctive acorns are really cute, aren't they?  An easy ID and TPP even knows where they got them because there are only 2 trees around, and only 1 of them is doing well.  However I do admire their curiosity.  

Friday Fabulous Flower - really ancient?


One of TPP's bright young colleagues, Herve Sauquet, has used a combination of morphology and molecular data to construct or model the first or ancestral flower.  It has several whorls of 3 floral organs and to TPP's eyes, the model so derived looks a lot like a Magnolia virginiana.  Many people have long thought that earliest flowers would have many spirally arranged parts.  Actually there are several differences, so the similarity to a Magnolia is just superficial, mostly just the several perianth whorls.  The oldest fossil flowers just don't look like this and molecular data suggests that flowering plants are older (149-256 my) than the fossil record indicates and so far no one has a really convincing pre-Cretaceous flowering plant fossil.  Several pteridosperms in the fossil record have angiospermy features, but no certain flowering plant ancestor can be identified.  

Friday fabulous foliage - ID of unknown


Welcome to the great midwest. Monday and Tuesday this week the highs were in the 80s (quite summerish 3-4 days ago), right now a sleety snow is falling and there is a good chance of a frost tonight.  Spent yesterday moving tender plants inside.  Our university's arborist stopped by with a leafy twig and asked if TPP could ID it.  Yes, this is part of the service TPP still provides in retirement (experience counts big time).  This was not a tree TPP recognized right off, but it had opposite compound leaves with three leaflets and long pink petioles.  The buds were long and conical covered with imbricate bud scales, so yes, just as you were thinking, very maple like.  A good woody plant key took me straight to Acer, and then on to A. mandshuricum, Manchurian maple.  So both our arboretum and herbarium just gained a new species and a voucher.  This is an ornamental species, just not real well known.  It should turn a nice fall color, if we actually get a fall (as the snow continues to fall).

Friday fabulous fungi - inky caps


After a period of mild drought, the area finally had a rain episode that delivered over 6.5 inches of rain over three days.  And since it is fall, mushrooms are popping up all over.  This is a cluster of inky caps, Coprinopsis atramentaris (formerly a Coprinus).  These are edible, but can be quite toxic if ethanol is also ingested.  This is a very common mushroom, and they usually begin dissolving into a black inky goo right away, a process called autodeliquescence, starting at the edge of the bell shaped cap.  

The Phactors have been apple picking up in Michigan, and this means some good eating.  Mrs. Phactor is a renowned pie maker and here's a couple of images to back that up.  Northern spies are our main cooking apple.  Note how flaky the crust looks and no runny filling.  Outstanding pie.