Friday, October 26, 2012

Blarney and Witches and Poison... Oh My!

~ Jessica S. Herwick

After a full year of planning and researching, my very lucky immediate family of six journeyed across Ireland in 8 days.  Happily crammed into a minivan, we travelled to new cities and towns each day, touched some tourist sites, and ventured out into countless lesser-known areas.  It was a charmed trip.  Every day in Ireland was full of wildlife and countryside, folklore and tradition.  Faeries, legends and spirits are all woven into the fabric of the country, so it was not surprising when we encountered a witch, locked forever in a stone, who grants wishes and a real-life poison garden… what a perfect Halloween story!

In County Cork, you can find Blarney Castle, popular tourist site, and the home of the world famous Blarney Stone. We arrived expecting a castle… just a castle… where we would park the minivan, climb the spiraling stone staircase to the top of the tower, and kiss the Blarney Stone according to tradition.  Now, that sounds simple enough, but the spiral staircase is ancient, and reaches directly up in the air - 90 feet into the air.  The traditional manner of kissing the stone isn’t simple either.  You have to lay on your back over the open air and the 90 foot drop (gulp) that lies between the castle edge and the stone.  Did I mention you have to do this all bent over backwards?  Practically upside down.  Nope, not for me. I am terrified of heights.  I prefer both feet on the ground, like most gardeners. I worried the whole drive there about how and if I would be able to face my fears once we arrived. 

When we came upon the castle grounds, I was delighted to find so much more than just a castle.  There in front of us stood over one thousand acres of green space overflowing with well-tended theme gardens, miles of grassy fields striped with thin streams, horse stables, caves open to the public, and old tunnels, all surrounding the castle ruins, each with their own legend to boot!  All of these features became the perfect excuse for me to avoid the 90-foot drop of the Blarney Stone.  While my family braved the staircase, kissed the stone and received their gift of gab, I stayed on the ground.  I poked around the green fields and garden walls.  It was here that I found the witch and her Poison Garden. Muah ha ha!

The Poison Garden

This garden was one of the most curious and intriguing gardens I have ever walked through.  I spent a whole hour reading the very informative display markers and observing the variety of plants that were used centuries ago to poison the body and trick the mind.  The garden was small, but historically accurate, well tended, and absolutely fascinating.  It has been active since the 18th century.  That is a whole lot of gardening!  I found some plants there I had never seen before, but had read about, or heard about. There they were, in front of me, growing.  As a history buff and a horticulturalist, this was a unique and unforgettable experience.  It was absolutely fascinating to observe some of the plants up close and thriving in a garden space.  

The poison garden displayed such deadly toxins as: American Mandrake, Birthwort, Black Cohosh, Camellia sinensis Tea, Castor Oil, Cherry Laurel, Columbine, Common Box, Deadly Nightshade, Delphinium, European Mandrake, Foxglove, Henbane, Love Lies Bleeding, Oleander, Opium Poppy, Poison Hemlock, Poison Ivy, Rhubarb, Ruta Graveolens (we know this as Rue), Scutellaria luterifolia, Veratrum album (White Hellebore), Vincetoxicum Officinalis ,Vitus agnus (Chaste Tree), Wolfsbane, Wormwood and Yew Tree.  The Blarney Castle website has a fabulous online tour of this garden, and can provide you with all the folklore related to the plants that reside inside it's walls.

For More Information:
Blarney Castle Website – This page contains information about all of the gardens surrounding Blarney Castle and a Video Tour of the Poison Garden:

The Witch Stone

Near the lower end of the castle is a small kitchen with a set of stairs that lead out into the garden area.  It is said that the kitchen was used by the witch of Blarney Castle, when royalty still employed witches, and she would walk those stairs to and from the her kitchen, gathering ingredients from the garden to put into her potions and brews.  A few feet from the bottom of the kitchen stairs, there is a large stone that is said to be the witch’s prison.  If you look closely, you can see the profile of a witch.  According to legend, the witch of Blarney Castle is cursed to live in this stone forever, trapped and frozen during the day and bound to serve forever at night - by granting wishes of those who know how to use her kitchen stairs to properly make their wish.  The current staff and guardians of the castle respectfully place firewood out for the witch every evening which she uses at night, when she is magically released from the stone until sunrise.  It is said that you can see the embers fading out as the sun rises, returning the witch to her stone prison.

For More Information:
See this Blarney Castle Website Page for more info on many attractions at Blarney:

Furthermore… Ireland’s Direct Connection to Halloween

Did you know that Halloween comes from an ancient Druid Holiday called Sah-Win (in Gaelic pronounced Sow-en), and it is directly related to the garden!?  At sundown on October 31, Sah-Win would mark the closing of the Harvest Season and usher in the winter.  Celtics and Druids (Celtic Wisemen) believed that on this night, the barriers between the world of the living and the world of the dead were dissolved temporarily, and so many dressed in ways that would scare the demons and spirits until the barrier returned.  This holiday was later replaced with All Hallows Eve when the church became a powerful force in many lands, and has since evolved over the centuries into what we know today as Halloween.

Have a Safe and Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Fall bulb planting in containers

Michele K. Koskinen

Planting bulbs in containers is the only way many gardeners, with little to no ground, have to enjoy the burst of early to late spring that occurs with fall planted bulbs. Paired with your favorite container and flowers it gives the entrance to your home a colorful and cheerful welcome. Living in the city and walking down the street seeing a container of spring bulbs gives the hard edges of the sidewalk a softer feel and beautifies the neighborhood. If you have an apartment with a balcony or a home with a small patio, bulbs with containers are your ticket to a fanciful introduction to spring.

Planting bulbs in containers require the proper protection so they do not have a freeze thaw effect during the coldest months. There are many ways to insulate pots and everyone has their favorite. Here are a few I have read about or used. I am sure there are other ideas and everyone has their own solutions according to the space they have. Share your favorites by using the comment box to share with our readers.

1. The cheapest way to do this is to use burlap, leaves and newspaper around the pot. I wrap the pot in burlap and start putting leaves and newspaper around the sides. This becomes an insulating layer for the container. I have had the most success waiting until the temperatures fall in November.
2. Use shredded leaves or a thin layer of mulch on the top. A heavy layer of leaves will get soggy and possibly rot the top bulbs so shred them first.
3. Put them in a garage or area where they will not warm up during the day and freeze at night.
4. Bury them in tightly packed straw as the insulator.
5. Use bubble wrap inside the container before filling along the sides of the wall. I am going to try this one and see how it works.

Why is that wire around the container? I have a major squirrel problem as many gardeners do. So, the majority of my bulbs are varieties of daffodils and narcissus. The only deterent for tulips and crocus is wire around the pot. It's not the most attractive solution but it works! You can also put wire on top of the pot and let the bulbs grow through the wire.  I have tried everything, stones, hot pepper, and to some success coyote urine. I love tulips but find they are dug up and never survive even as they are bloomng. My solution is to plant the tulips in a smaller pot and then put it into another pot with insulation and I put wire everywhere. I then pull the small pot out, and enjoy them in my home when they start blooming.

This planter had succession plantings of crocus, and early and late daffodils. To have a container with several blooming times you must plan how it looks ahead of time by height, color, amount of foliage and time of bloom. The tallest and deepest bulbs should go in first and then another layer of soil at the proper depth for the next bulb.  This keeps your container blooming for weeks not just days.

You can plant any bulb in a container and have great results if you follow several rules.

1. Since most bulbs need to be planted at a certain depth make sure the container is deep enough for the bulb to be planted at twice it's diameter. The packaging that comes with your bulbs will have the exact depth needed for the bulb.

2. Provide good potting mix and drainage for the bulbs so they do not stay wet and rot from the soggy soil.

3. Plant and water them to get the roots started in preparation for the winter.  Watering if the season has been dry should be once a month. Remember ice kills the bulbs and plants so make sure you have good drainage.

4. Insulate the container to prevent freezing and thawing or store in a garage or other area for protection.

5. Fertilize at planting time with a slow release fertilizer. Do not fertilize again.

6. If planting bulbs with successive bloom times, follow the instructions below.

Layered planting has a few rules:

1. Choose a pot deep enough for all the  layers, 10 to 14 inches high and wide are usually sufficient.
2. Make sure there are sufficient drainage holes in the bottom and layer the bottom with pea gravel or other stones.
3. Choosing the correct plants is important for your container. Choose bulbs that do not have alot of foliage so they do not shadow or keep light from their companion plants. The bulbs should also be a strong species to withstand any wind or poor weather.
4. Fill the pot with potting soil until you reach the depth for the tallest bulb. Place the bulbs point up and facing out. Continue to layer until your final layer is placed as deep as in a garden and covered with soil.
5. Water with slow released ferilizer and cover with a thin layer of mulch.
6. After blooming continue to water and fetilize very lightly until the foliage dies off completely. Move the pot to a place to rest until next fall.

Other links for information:

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Autumn Seed Foraging

~ Jessica S. Herwick

I am a notorious seed ninja this time of year. I start by reserving the seeds from my best garden vegetables, and then I start the grand search outside of my own backyard. My friends laugh at me when I pull over on the side of the highway to snag a wildflower or sneak around their backyards, tucking flower heads and strawberry runners into my purse like I’m stealing from a Sunday buffet. It’s true, I confess. When I remember, I will go as far as hiding a few sandwich bags along with a permanent marker in my backpack… and I carry them around with me… just in case. There is a smorgasbord of plants that can be started next spring (ahem… for free) from seeds you collect, dry and store this month! 

Seed harvesting and storage is a method used by farmers who grow and produce heirloom vegetables. Seed collection enabled certain plants to evolve into the veggies we eat today, like corn! For centuries, many cultures relied on their ability to collect, dry and store their seeds in order to survive. These seeds were the start of their gardens the following spring. Centuries beyond this history, our food systems have changed so drastically, it is no longer necessary for us to collect this years seeds in order to eat next year. Without seed foraging, we will not starve. But, in today’s society, a little know-how and a few extra minutes in October can certainly save you a ton of money, and it can be a lot of fun. Consider trying nature’s methods this autumn to continue, and perhaps even enhance your garden next spring.

How To Collect Seeds for Next Spring's Plantings

Bloom found on plant with pods on right.
Identify the plant before you take the seeds.  If you’re storing seeds form your garden for next year, this isn’t a problem. You know what you’ve planted.  But, if you’re borrowing a small sampling from your neighbor’s garden or a strange out-of-town walkway, you might need to ask a few questions or refer to a field guide.  You want to know exactly what you are planting.  

Perfectly Ready Seed Pods to Forage

Ensure the seeds are ripe so they are mature enough to grow.  Seed pods have to be fully matured and dry before removing.  The rule of thumb is to tap the seed source – flowers will drop seeds when the seeds are ready to be harvested.  Pods will shake with loose seeds, although you have to listen closely if the pods are still closed.  Many seedpods will pop open when the seeds are ready to drop to their new home in the ground.  If you wait for this stage to harvest seeds from pods, watch closely!  Many other animals are after those seeds too, and they will go quickly once the pod makes the seeds available. 

Seeds Drying on Paper Towel
Collect the seeds, or the pods.  Hold your sandwich bag or your hand under the dry seedpod or flower and shake the loose seeds into the bag.  If you’re in a hurry, you can remove the whole pod or flower head by detaching it at the base of the pod or flower.  Usually, this can be done by pinching it with your thumb and forefinger. (finger nails help!) Keep each item separate in separate bags.  Seal with as little air inside the bag as possible, label the bag and take it home. 

Dried and Packaged Seeds
Fully dry the seeds, even if they seem ready for storage.  Once you’re home, remove the seeds or the seed pods/flower heads from their bags.  Shake seeds free onto a paper towel.  Spread seeds on paper towel so the air can flow around each seed.  Set seeds on a sunny windowsill or on top of the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days to ensure the seeds are completely dry on the paper towel.  Once completely dried, store.

 Store fully-dried seeds in airtight containers. (Used medicine bottles can be sanitized and used for this).  Tupperware, or sealable sandwich bags also work well.  I prefer sandwich bags because they are the easiest for me to store.  Label your seeds with the name of the plant, the date you harvested the seeds, and the location of the seed source.  Keep in a dark, dry, cool place until spring planting.

Seeds from your fresh garden veggies!     To harvest, dry and store seeds from your vegetable garden, follow the same directions as above but instead of shaking seeds from dried flowers or pods, you will remove the seeds from the actual vegetable.  Cut the seeds out and then lay them onto the paper towel.  This may require a few extra days of drying time. 
This will not work for all vegetables.  Root vegetables and leafy vegetables produce seeds a different way, as the seeds are not inside the vegetables.  Use this method for tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, melons, and any fruit that holds the seeds on the inside.
Note – Some hybrid vegetables may not produce heavily active seeds.


Hosta Seeds
Marigold Seeds

1.  INVEST IN A GOOD GUIDEBOOK  (specific to your areas of interest and location)
Even the experts use reliable references, guides, and other experts to identify the plants when collecting seeds or taking cuttings for transplants.  Many perennials, shrubs, and wildflowers have look-alikes that are invasive or harmful to animals.  Only collect and transplant seeds you can fully identify.  Use trusted resources.

Collect only native species!
Do not take seeds from long distances and transplant them in your backyard!  If you have followed step one and invested in a good guidebook, that book will give you specifics for your planting zone.  Transplanting anything that does not naturally grow in your environment can throw delicate ecosystems way off balance or can become problems that cost time and money to solve. 

Keeping a good record of what you find, where you find it and when it was found, will be unendingly helpful in the long-run.  I guarantee.  You might think you will remember where you grabbed that little seed pod attached to those amazing blue flowers across the street, but life gets busy, and it’s not always easy to keep your items organized. 

Want to Learn More?

Labeling and marking plants for winter

Do you have a perennial garden or bulbs that have lost or are losing their foliage? Now is the time to label them and put notes in your garden journal. You will be thankful next spring when everything starts popping up and you know what needs to be transplanted or where not to dig. It also will help you plan next year's garden. Labeling your plants

The best labels are galvanized wires and zinc nameplates. You can also make your own nameplates with a variety of items. Check out our  pinterest link for some ideas.

It is also helpful to take photo's of your garden as it grows and note in your journal  Garden Journals the space it needs and how it grew during the growing season. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Burpee’s Historic Fordhook Farm Open Garden

Lauren McEwen

On August 24th and 25th Burpee opened their Doylestown, PA gardens to the public for a $5.00 admission fee. Daily events included guided garden tours, planting and harvesting demonstrations, tomato tastings, plant sale and a lecture on native blueberries by Dr. Mark Ehlenfeldt, USDA blueberry breeder and expert.

I had never been to the farm before and decided to check it out. I did a self-guided tour of the grounds and took lots of photos to share with you. While there, I also purchased Yukon Gold potatoes and garlic to plant in my vegetable garden. Follow up blog posts to come when it's time to put them in the ground.

 Some views of the Burpee perennial shade garden.

A quite nook to rest my feet

 There are a number of trial gardens at Burpee's Fordhook Farm. Visitors are not permitted inside the fences, where new plant varieties and techniques are being tested.

 View of a Fordhook Farm Trial Garden

A splash of color.

Famous Burpee Introductions

  • 1894 - Iceberg Lettuce. The first lettuce that can be transported to market without wilting.

  •  1902 - First Yellow Sweet CornGolden Bantam (yes, all sweet corn was originally white, Burpee bred a yellow sweet corn so it would seem like it was already buttered!)

  • 1948 - Burpee Big Boy Tomato - a breakthrough in taste and yield that is still a best seller today.

  •  1976 - Burpee introduces the first white Marigold.

  •  1998 - Burpee’s new4th of July’is the world’s first full-size tomato to ripen by Independence Day.

  •  1999 - First ever RED sweet corn ‘Ruby Queenis introduced.

  •  2009The world’s first seedless tomato ‘Sweet Seedless Hybrid’is introduced.