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Early fall lawn grooming tips

Ah, the smell of freshly mowed creeping Charlie in the morning; nothing quite like it. Although the Phactors have extensive gardens, so big is our city estate that enough lawn remains to more than equal the amount of lawn on 3 or 4 or 5 standard-sized city lots which around here are 50 x 150. Now this would be an onerous task except that much of our lawn is in light to heavy shade so it doesn't require mowing very often. In these circumstances nothing beats creeping Charlie or blue violets, except maybe a shade-loving sedge. Lawn purists will wrinkle their noses and not a month goes by but when some chemical lawn care company leaves its toxic brochures tucked in our front door. Creeping Charlie and blue violets only grow so tall, and today's mowing was the first mowing of the shadiest area in 2 months. Apply chemical lawn killers to this area and nothing would be left but bare ground, and while this might be turned into forest understory, it really only looks good in the spring. This is because some of our other lawn "weeds" (trillium, wild ginger, blue bells, Solomon's seal) are not apparent because they are spring ephemerals. So tip number one is do not mow too often certainly no more than once a month. Tip number two is do not obsess about grass even if it is a minor component of lawn. Tip number three: buy a lawn mower capable to dealing with bits of bark, twigs as big as your fingers, and a smattering of leaves. This is part of having an ecological lawn. You know you're dealing with an obsessive when they speak of mowing the "grass" as if in some suburban universe a monoculture of grass is a desirable thing. As this blog is being written a neat, undulating sward of green spreads before the perennial gardens beyond. At this distance no one can identify the plants composing the green: neat, green, aesthetically pleasing, so what more is needed? Ah, just one thing, affirmation from an expert! And now you have it!

How slippery is a banana peel? Very basic, award-winning research

Everyone has seen the slip on a banana peel gag in cartoons or old slap stick movies, but what kind of an inquisitive mind decides to actually measure just how slippery a banana peel is?  Well, here's a report on this award-winning research. And the award?  Why the Ignoble, of course! Highly coveted you may be assured. 

No, no, no, no, no - Goldenrod doesn't cause hayfever!

The fall allergy season is here, almost. The harvest season kicks up lots of dust and mold spores, and ragweed comes into flower soon. The local newspaper had a nice sidebar article about allergies and they mentioned all of these factors, BUT then some moron put a picture of goldenrod in bloom above the article! Now maybe they think goldenrod is ragweed, or that goldenrod causes allergies; wrong and wrong. Here's the problem: they both flower at about the same time, and most people see and recognize goldenrod, but they don't see or recognize ragweed. This is because goldenrod is insect pollinated; you should know this because the flowers are showy to attract pollinators. Ragweed flowers are green and seldom noticed as a result, but the plant is wind-pollinated so it must make a lot of pollen to blow around. Once again, TPP only wishes they would check with their friendly neighborhood botanist before doing such things; he doesn't charge much.

Keeping good records - A is for Aster

Late summer flowering in Mrs. Phactor's perennial garden runs largely to the color pink but in a wide variety of plants. Here and there a little white and pale blue sneaks in.  In the ongoing quest for more diversity, an aster was purchased at a native plant sale and then another aster purchased at a perennial sale elsewhere and both were planted to help fill in an area largely denuded by herbivores of one sort or another.  And now several months later both asters are flowering, and both have pale blue-lavender ray flowers and yellow disk flowers (Does anyone need a refresher lesson on the inflorescences of composites?  Remember, those ray flowers are not petals.). Exactly what is what is a fairly reasonable request, and one species was written down in a notebook, maybe, if that's what it refers to, and the other one was not, but which is the "other" one? Well, you don't teach plant ID for over 40 years and not be able to deal with this. Ah, yes, a quick garden check on the plants in question, asters indeed, and to make matters short, sweet, and easy, name tags had been placed appropriately at their bases when these were planted. Yea! The larger species was Aster laevis, the smooth blue aster, the Illinois native, standing about 4' tall with flowering heads (remember they aren't flowers) little over 1" in diameter (top - 2 heads). The smaller species was Aster azureus, the sky blue aster, standing about 2.5' tall with flowering heads about a half inch in diameter. Not sure if smooth refers to blue or something else, and both look pretty lavender.  Both are quite delicately handsome, but TPP predicts having trouble remembering which is which in the future, which is why they were planted almost next to each other to aid the memory. To aid our recall, some notes were added to the master list of garden plants.

Always looking for bargains

There are certain things in life that you continue to seek, for example, an excellent wine under $10 a bottle and great bargain plants. This is the time of year when big box stores heavily discount their plants to empty out their garden centers. Mostly the plants are  not worth the effort, however, it doesn't cost anything but a little time to take a quick look. TPP was pleasantly surprised to see a number of small shrubby magnolias that were in particularly good shape for late summer. TPP's second caveat is that most of the plants in late season sales are not of much interest to the more sophisticated gardener, but TPP had to change his mind after seeking red currants and only finding them, and excellent plants too, at a big box store. To TPP's great surprise, one of the magnolias was M. kobus var. loebneri (M. x loebneri), which sort of looks like a star magnolia in growth habit, but it flowers a bit later and the flowers are light pink. Wow! The next worry is that potted trees and shrubs can be rather root bound especially late in the season. TPP recommends giving the pot a tap and pulling up the root ball for a look. In this case the root ball was in great shape so it will only take a few minutes to spread the roots out nicely which is necessary because this greatly improves the early growth ultimately the survival of the plant.  And here's the best news of all; it only cost $20!  Oh, yes, a new magnolia that's already 4' tall and ready to flower in the spring, and only $20.  Now where to plant it? 

Brief 3.8 million year history of plants

Here's the front and back covers of a brand, spanking new book about plant diversity. Armstrong writes OK and he knows his stuff pretty well, in my opinion. Most importantly this book wasn't written for botanists, it was written for everyone else who might be interested in learning more about the history of plants, about plant diversity, a subject that isn't known well outside of botanical circles. Plant diversity usually is presented in textbooks as a group by group plant menagerie focusing on reproductive cycles and the associated jargon. Most importantly How the Earth Turned Green (Chicago University Press) wasn't written like a textbook so plant diversity could be presented in an interesting manner. TPP gives this book his endorsement, and he didn't even get a free copy for saying so.

Friday Fabulous Flower - paper art

Every now and again TPP likes to present you with a bit of culture in the form of botanical art.  This floral image is made of paper, the product of Yulia Brodskaya, a very talented artist. Your first impression is that these are small works of art, but actually some of them are the size of a wall.  Check out her webpage for more.  Enjoy.  HT to HuffPo for calling attention to this artist. 

I am a botanist

Just a couple of days ago, TPP explained that he was a botanist. This was because the Botanical Society of America started a campaign for its members to loudly (?) proclaim themselves botanists. If you want to see some of the hundreds of responses from social media adept people who are botanists, click on over and have a look. These are TPP's colleagues and he's proud of them!  Here's a nice article at the Philadelphia Enquirer explaining what some of my colleagues are doing to combat "plant blindness" and zoochauvinism.

Ice Cream 101

Can any university claim to be a distinguished, quality institution of higher learning if they do not have decent ice cream in their student center/union?  Clearly an absurd question to which the answer is equally clear; no. A few universities of the ag/tech sort have dairy science departments where students in ice cream (DS 101) plus advanced studies where less common flavors as well as frozen chunks are explored, sell the products of this academic endeavor with excellent results.  OK they may not have 29 flavors, but often the ice cream is of top quality.  But even here apparently there are no advance courses in gelato, and one wonders why?  Maybe the romance language programs have fallen on hard times, especially with the aggie crowd, but this is hardly an excuse to ignore their culture's best products.  Come on people, frozen yogurt vs. gelato; it isn't even a contest.  Our university is one that cares so little for the academic enterprise, its reputation, and sugar-induced creativity that there isn't even soft serve [ice cream] frozen custard, maybe a brand like IQ.  A frozen yogurt place tried to make a go of it, and it failed for lack of business, based upon TPP's analysis, the result of a combination of high price and low quality ("it tastes ALMOST like ice cream" (my emphasis)].  So this is now the mantra for the anti-ice cream crowd, ice cream is not fiscally viable, but fiscal sacrifices are considered OK if they benefit sports, but student union space is sooo valuable, they've priced ice cream out of this market. The snack shop does have Blue Bunny ice cream bars, but they are hardly the thing to capture your imagination or interest; no theses from these for certain. So far the higher administration and the trustees seem to lack interest in this issue, which makes you wonder about their priorities. Now when polled independently, the students seem quite uniformly in favor of ice cream on campus and not just in some stupid "ice cream zone". Of course at a few very elite schools you can get espresso milkshakes made with real coffee thus taking care of two metabolic needs in one delicious dose. Perhaps if it were presented as a state educational mandate, ice cream would be forthcoming on campus, but only after an assistant provost and a committee of faculty studied the issue for a year and issued a working paper on ice cream policy to be discussed at open forums. Cups vs. cones, how many flavors, Sunday or sundae, plastic vs. real spoons, and so on.  It's the way things are done.   

Soggy September weather

Usually September is a fairly dry, fairly nice weather month. August had above average rainfall, so things entering September were not too dry. TPP made the observation 3 days ago that some rain would be nice or a few things would need some watering.  Hoo boy!  With a total rainfall approaching 4" in the past 48 hours, everything is well watered now OK. Usually this time of year the lily pond needs some topping up, but now a couple of inches will have to be drained off. Newly planted greens will have had plenty of water. On the down side, this much rain clearly demonstrated where the chimney flashing problem is located, and a contractor will have to be hired to fix things up on the roof side and to replace old (ancient) plaster below that has been degraded gradually over a number of years dating back to before our ownership. As they say, when it rains, it pours. Not sure how this will affect our prairie or the maize crop that is predicted to be a bin buster. With cooler and wetter than average weather, this area may receive an early winter.