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This is not a pretty picture: aster yellows

October 22, 2018

When you notice the coneflowers have made Seussical green sprouts from the cone, your first thought might be, “cool!” But then you remember coneflowers don’t emulate kids’ stories, and you likely have a problem.

I was trying to take IPhone pics of these sweet little bees that were all over the swamp sunflowers and coneflowers. The green sprouts out of the mature cone caught my eye first, and then the distorted petals. This is the disease aster yellows.

The University of Wisconsin Extension describes it well:

This disease is caused by a phytoplasma, a bacterium-like organism similar to a mycoplasma (so formerly called a mycoplasma-like organism or MLO), but which infects plants, and causes virus-like symptoms. In plants is it found only in phloem sieve cells. Its host range includes more than 300 plants species in 38 plant families of broad-leaved herbaceous plants as well as a number of grain crops such as wheat and barley.

It affects important commercial crops like lettuce, carrots, and celery, but shows itself most dramatically on Echinaceas and other ray flowered plants. I’d heard of it before since it was once thought to cause rose rosette disease, which I dealt with in Chicago. But aster yellows spreads through leaf hopper insects: “It begins developing down south early in the spring, often building up large populations in the grain fields of Missouri, Arkansas and other states. The adults will migrate on the prevailing winds and jet streams that frequently move northward in the spring, flying into the upper atmosphere to be blown hundreds of miles north before falling out onto new host plants in an area far from where they took off.

Crazy! You should just read the whole article. Symptoms in young plants can be vague, but the reproductive parts show the most sign of disease:

The flowers are frequently deformed, with under-developed petals or weird, extra growths, or a change of color

Plants exhibiting virescence don’t develop the normal color of the petals, but are green (but don’t confuse this with the normal green color of some newer cultivars, such as ‘Green Envy’!). Plants with phyllody have tufts of pale, deformed leaves, often inside the flower or in place of the petals. On coneflowers secondary flower heads are often produced on top of the primary flowers. The pathogen induces sterility, so seeds often are not produced, and those that are produced are generally not viable.

There is no cure except to destroy affected plants. I grew my Echinaceas from seeds I collected on the 47th St pedestrian bridge over Lakeshore Dr in Chicago, and hauled them here in the back of the car when we moved, babied them in a nursery bed, and transplanted them to our new house just this spring. I was loathe to kill them and so looked at what else it could be.

A teeny pest called an eriophyid mite can cause similar problems on Echinaceas only, and you can cut off the affected flowers and be ok. The mite causes the deformed sprouts but doesn’t affect the rays on the flowers. Since mine were changed, I had to assume aster yellows. I let it go a little after these photos but then had to trash them. There is one tiny seedling that sprouted nearby, and I don’t know whether it will be affected or not. I should probably pull it just in case. So keep an eye on your coneflowers, zinnias, and sunflowers since they might sound the alarm that says your veggies could be harboring it too.

Aster yellows damage on Echinacea purpurea flower

Happy Spring CSA

March 20, 2018

Welcome Spring! We’re all ready. Since we still are renting and not gardening, we signed up for our first ever CSA (community supported agriculture) from City Roots Farm, meaning gorgeous local organic produce every week. What’s double cool is that when we’re back in our own house, this urban farm is a 5-minute bike ride away (longer on the uphill home). Last week’s share was baby celery, collards, carrots, shitake mushrooms, and arugula microgreens. The beets were from a different farmer at Soda City Market. Look at all this!

SPringCSA-9150 What do to with it all? We had chicken quarters from Wil-Moore Farms (regulars at City Roots’ Thursday market), so a quick search brought me to Vinegar Braised Chicken Legs, a sticky tart shitake-heavy concoction from Bon Appétit. What about all the celery? My son wanted to make Ants on a Log of course, but these stems were too tiny and tender for peanut butter. Enter Warm Shitake and Celery Salad. Thank you, Internet.

I’ve become much less exacting when it comes to recipes, substituting ingredients we don’t have for what’s on hand. Hey, I chip away at pesky perfectionism wherever I can, plus we eat better. With the chicken, onions subbed for shallots (not so delicate, but tasty). Skipped the raisins because no one likes them and chile to include my six-year-old’s palate. For the salad, the tender collards subbed for spinach, and no one missed the nuts and cheese. SO many mushrooms in this meal! Cooked with the chicken, they became part of the gravy. Warmed up in a hot cast iron, they were the star of the salad, meaty and tender.

All this on a Monday! Thanks City Roots and all the recipe writers out there saving weeknights. What are you cooking up to bring in spring?


Bee teaser

March 19, 2018

I’m excited about a couple of articles coming up soon with my stories and photos. Here’s a little teaser: honeybees bringing in early spring pollen in Lexington County. Their loaded pollen baskets on their hind legs look like tiny rocket boosters. Look for it next time you watch bees work flowers. If you ever have an opportunity to watch honeybees up close at the entrance to the hive, take it. Their communication, their spiraling orienteering flights, the sound, all is fascinating.

beepollen-6327I have not detailed my season as a beekeeper in Chicago, one of the most demanding activities I’ve ever attempted. Chicago is a great place to learn, with a large, connected beekeeping community, bee-friendly city ordinances, and copious pollen and nectar sources. Still, I couldn’t keep them alive over winter.

Knowing what I do now about the time commitment and extent of healthy hive management, and the impact of native bees compared to honeybees (all of European origin), I’m not eager to have my own hives again. Still I’d love to regularly help out other beekeepers and continue learning. Mainly I’ll focus on creating healthy habitat and nutrition sources for native pollinators and bees of all kinds.

Check out pollinator-friendly plant lists that Xerces Society created by region, and learn about the wide breadth of Xerces’ bee conservation work.



Frosty reminder

March 13, 2018

2018-01 Congaree Swamp NP-5854-2South Carolina froze last night, right down to 32 degrees. It’s nothing like the walloping the Northeast is getting, and I’m not complaining. My citrus trees are covered and lit to stay warm, and that’s it for my efforts. The cold did remind me of our bitter January and a frozen treat we encountered in Congaree Swamp National Park, 30 minutes or so away from town. Have you ever heard of frost flowers or frost weed? I hadn’t. They turned up in photos on my amazing friend and horticulture goddess Andrea’s Instagram when she found them on their farm in central Texas. She ID’d them as Verbesina virginica. Hers were as long as her elegant hand.

2018-01 Congaree Swamp NP-5853-2It happens when ice drawn up through the stem splits it, and extrudes in swirls and planes. It requires frozen ground in moist areas, and of course below freezing temperatures, so I never imagined I’d see them here. Then came our deep freeze, and the rangers at Congaree posted a photo of one they found! So off we went on a freezing sunny Saturday in search. The rangers provided a waypoint, and there we combed the leafy scrub and almost gave up. Then we found them, five scattered by the path, tiny but shimmering. Nowhere near as large as Andrea’s–we were almost on our bellies to see them up close–but still a thrill to find for me and especially for my 6-year-old explorer.


The rangers aren’t sure of the species, but Verbesina virginica does grow in the swamp. notes “the same phenomenon is regularly noted on the stems of Helianthemum canadense (common names: Frostweed, Rock frost, Frostplant, Frostwort, Longbranch Frostweed), H. bicknellii (common names: Frostweed, Hoary frostweed), Cunila origanoides, Pluchea odorata, P. foetida, P. camphorata. Additionally, it has been occasionally reported on the lower stems of various other species, including some in Lamiaceae, Verbenaceae, Apocynaceae.” Ice formations in plants turn out to be well studied. links to the work of Dr. James Carter, who has examined ice in plants, dead wood, and soil. Plenty there to learn.

The other surprise in the swamp that day were feral hogs, a family with four babies! Buddy the beagle started to go all scent hound, so I assumed rabbits or deer. Nope. The hogs ran but I was pretty nervous, and we kept a tight leash on Bud. I’ve seen Old Yeller!

2018-01 Congaree Swamp NP-5867

Later we asked the rangers about them, and turns out the park is overrun with hogs. We were told a boar might “false charge” you while the rest of the band runs off. I’ve known hogs are a problem in just about every state but this was only my second encounter, and it made for an edgy walk back out.

South Carolina–wilder and more interesting than imagined.

In Print, Edible Columbia

February 2, 2018

Hey! Look who has a garden column in Edible Columbia magazine. Feels great to be writing for an Edible Communities publication again. This issue is chock full of info on  local organizations making serious change: Slow Food, Grow Food Carolina, SC Dept of Ag, Midlands Food Alliance, Sustainable Midlands, Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, and one new to me I’m really excited about, SC Farm to Institution, bringing onsite gardens and learning happen in schools, preschools, and beyond. Great stories introduce a tobacco-turned-cotton farmer turning his crop into locally produced upscale shirts, and a mobile grocer serving food deserts. Shell Royster’s succulent food photos accompany a bunch of recipes I want to try. There is truly so much happening with farms and food in this state!


My piece sings the praises of Clemson cooperative extension and soil testing, local garden centers, planting calculators, and getting on the stick because spring is about here!

Pick up a free copy at Rosewood Market, Whole Foods, Vino Garage/Curiosity Coffee, City Roots, and more around Cola and Lexington.IMG_8639


November 8, 2017

It’s been a year minus a day since that horrible night when it dawned on millions of us that a lying, bombastic, ignorant, narcissistic sexual predator was elected U.S. president and not in fact the first ever woman. I share my continued anger, dismay, and embarrassment over the turn of events in our country with many close to me and across the nation.

But today is a celebration, a rebuke of the toxic policies and attitudes the current administration is unleashing via the first midterm election. Vi Lyles is Charlotte, NC’s new mayor, the first African American woman to hold that office. Danica Roem is Virginia’s first openly transgender state legislator and unseated the bigot who wrote the bathroom bill. Progressive candidates, some written off by pundits as impossible projects, stood up to the wave of negative hateful denigrating politics to run for office and won! Here’s the list.

After near daily news of environmental protections being torn down, public education support being eroded, women’s rights being violated, immigrants demonized, children’s health insurance being revoked, rampant government corruption, and on and on, this is a day of hope. Election Day 2018 is coming and let this be a preview of America rejecting prosperity for the few at the cost of everyone else, of embracing our communities, finding strength in our differences, and becoming neighborhoods and a nation that truly reflects our highest ideals.

On the home front we’re waiting impatiently on construction, putting out small fires that supersede more fun planning like the future garden. But the Meyer Lemon Tree That Would Not Die gives us a glimpse of future harvests: seven lovely lemons we’re a bit afraid to cut into. What to make? Lemonade feels like poetic sustenance after such a bitter year.

If you’re in the Midlands of SC and interested in growing dwarf citrus, call Ben at Simply Citrus Nursery. He has beautiful stock and freely shares growing info–and frost-protecting blankets.

The Dearth

September 21, 2017

A day before the official beginning of fall in South Carolina, it’s inching up to 91 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s also the start of a typically dry stretch of months, which came as a shock a year ago as our first fall here progressed. It had been a brutally hot summer. Even the locals said so, with record heat and weeks straight above 95.  You’d swear the humidity is topical though it is not. It is however a conveyor that turns 95, a tolerable temperature in the desert, into a skull-splitting pit-drenching burden of sweat for the pedestrian, and that’s just on the block and a half walk to school. We left Chicago at the end of June, not one day sooner than we had to, soaking up the new bright green and free downtown concerts of the city’s sweetest month.

They mean it there about Urbs in Horto. From the marquee Lurie and Chicago Botanic Gardens to the pocket prairie on 47th, wildflower fields along the lakeshore, rich city plantings, the kitchen garden at the church on our corner, the never ending project of the community garden, and our little patch of balcony and shade, the City in a Garden made the brute force change from rural to urban into something I could recognize. It never felt like home, but at least there were gardens.

Some record of this change is on Instagram. Blogging just hasn’t happened. I blame needing reading glasses and too small a screen, but the truth is, due to housing issues, there hasn’t been much to garden. Before we left Chi I met Amanda of Kiss My Aster at her talk at Lurie Garden’s plant sale. She’s super fun. Since my friend Craig’s Ellis Hollow blog is how I’d heard about her, I mentioned my own fallow blog. Microblog! she said, as a revival strategy. A year and a half later I’m already way too windy.

Here is the plant that is blooming outside the house we are renting. It looks cleome-ey but I don’t know what it is. There is also kudzu and a weedwhacker. Also a pecan tree raining down shit from several web worm colonies. In the maybe 4 months (or 12?) we will be in our own house, and there will be gardens. Awaiting in pots are two dwarf citrus trees, two gifted climbing roses, three native azaleas, four strange ferns, a prickly pear, a mangave, a found agave, and various sedums. In the ground on the property where we don’t currently live are a dwarf vitex, dwarf bay tree, yellow vining jessamine I had to have, and plants brought from Chi: anise hyssop (seeding madly), my son’s preschool-grown chives, Echinacea grown from seed collected in the 47th St overpass, and Amsonia grown from Lurie Garden seeds.

Plans have yet to be made for how it will all come together. A house needs to happen first. We have a dearth of plantable ground, and will perversely enjoy the dearth of humidity (fingers crossed the hurricanes stay out at sea). We’ve gained an amazing community of caring friends. I can’t wait to host them in our garden space someday, and tell some Carolina garden and travel stories here along the way. Stay tuned!


A guide to weeds

June 14, 2016

While working and volunteering at our community garden, which was overrun by bindweed, ragweed, redroot pigweed and other unwanted plants, it became clear pretty fast that many of us didn’t know what those plants growing on the edges, some in beds, some in plots, were. Some got pulled that shouldn’t have (I am guilty of mistaking horseradish for dock. oops.) while others started out looking innocent but turned into giant tap-rooted behemoths you couldn’t kill with a blowtorch. It took a few frustrating events to realize we needed a weed guide devoted to our block on the south side, and another year to make it happen.


It isn’t Weeds of North America by a stretch, and relies heavily on university extensions and other authorities, but it helped the gardeners at the 62nd Street Community Garden discern what we needed to eradicate, like bindweed, ragweed, and redroot pigweed, to name a few, what we wanted to preserve in dedicated areas (milkweed), and what not to waste time on, like plantain. Maybe you can use it, too.



Tulip time relics

May 14, 2015

It’s tulip time in Chicago.The daffy parrot tulips are full on, so it’s late tulip time. Looking for something in my photo library just now, I stumbled on this picture of silly tulips that used to pop up smack in the middle of the way back of the yard in Slaterville. Someone’s long ago flash of color in a grown-over flower bed I guess.
I kind of loved them, these loud and blowsy bulbs, mowed around them, let the leaves grow and die out on their own. Along with the blue and white violets and tiny grape hyacinths sprinkling out around them into the green, they were like our own spring ephemerals. Riotous and special.
No telling who planted them or how far back. Had the little house next door that had been lifted off its foundation and rolled over there once stood here? Was this the corner of a shed once, with no footprint left save this little strip of spring?

Now that we’re gone, too, I wonder what has taken hold from my old garden, which roots will outlast new owners with brown thumbs, lawn mowers, digging dogs, dry summers, and deer. I wonder if the planter of the red and yellow tulips ever looks back. Because I sure miss that patch of green, dammit.

A Christmas Wish (with Kermit)

December 20, 2014

My Mom & Dad love Christmas. They made our home so beautiful, it was like a fantasy to me. Decorating our tree with glossy painted wooden ornaments collected over 3 tours in Germany, kid-crafted styrofoam balls with school pictures tacked on, my Dad’s paper & fuzzy bearded Santa made when he was about 5, and the funny angel on top was the big event, but floating through the many weeks was the music. Holy music, Jingle Bells, their choir songs played at the piano, and John Denver and the Muppets. (We are an unabashedly John Denver-loving home.)

As I play Chrstmas tunes for my little boy, songs bubble up on Padora from those Christmas specials we all waited for and watched together with glee (and played on records over and over), happy-sad tears come to my eyes and I can’t explain to him why. He doesn’t understand homesickness yet, and hasn’t sang “Silent Night” 1200 times yet, either.

I miss you, Mom & Dad, but in the yearning is the feeling and the anchor and the faith you gave me, burning bright. We love making traditions for Pete that I hope he’ll still treasure 42 years from now.

On the best of days, this really is the time of year when “everyone seems like a part of everyone’s family,” but at the heart of it is my own. I love Christmas and I love you!

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