Saturday, October 21, 2017

Gardening on the Inside


"Plants give me oxygen, and I give them carbon dioxide. We need each other."
                                                   Reginald, Insight Garden Program participant


When it comes to inmates in the prison system, a charitable viewpoint ends for many people. So often there is little sympathy for those who find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

Perhaps it is not surprising that it took Beth Wiatkus a full year to gain permission from San Quentin Prison to create a small flower garden, and an even longer period of five years to add a second, larger garden to the otherwise rather bleak prison grounds. But with perseverance, Beth installed raised beds, assembled a team of volunteers and designed the year-long garden curriculum that was to become the Insight Garden Program.

Beth Waitkus and a group of inmates in their garden. 

The raised vegetable and herb beds. 

Beth had been working as a communications and organizational consultant when the attacks of 9/11 made her question her faith in humanity. As part of the process of dealing with the tragedy, she had a opportunity to take a tour of the San Quentin Sate Prison. A lifelong gardener, Waitkus was saddened by the desolate and depressing prison yard that was utterly devoid of any greenery. As part of the tour she met the director for the Insight Prison Project, which provides meditation, yoga and restorative justice classes for the inmates. That chance meeting turned out to be pivotable for Beth.

In 2002, Beth launched the Insight Garden Project. "Everybody has a heart and a chance for transformation," she says. 

The idea of the program is to connect inmates with self, nature and the community providing for a healthier life while in prison and after release.The group meets once a week. Guest speakers talk with prisoners about ecosystems, permaculture, green jobs training and healthy food. 

Many of the men in the medium-security unit have little or no experience with nature or working in a garden. The hope is that prisoners who take responsibility for planting, tending and harvesting the garden will take responsibility for their own lives. Mindfulness practices encourage the men to see their lives as a garden they tend.

Gardening increases confidence, allowing people who may lack skills or education to see success quickly in their work. Seeds sprout and buds soon become food.

Fifteen years later the garden at San Quentin is a thriving plot of drought-tolerant plants. The vegetables and herbs grown are donated to local non-profits.

San Quentin Prison, just north of San Francisco, houses inmates serving sentences under 15 years. 

There is an alarming statistic that in the U.S. over 50% of inmates return to prison within three years. The less charitable among us would say that bad people will always tend to do bad things.

Released from prison without skills, employment and little community support, inmates can default to their previous criminal behaviour. It's a simple case that desperate people sometimes resort to doing desperate things.

I think it comes down to your faith in humanity. Perhaps there are some who are unreachable and certainly there are those who ought to remain in prison due to the serious nature of their crimes. On the other hand, it is also possible that a long series of life's misfortunes added up to a person making a serious mistake.

Beth Wiatkus believes that everyone deserves a second chance. She's grown to realize that people who have made poor choices still have the capacity for change. Sometimes that change involves a man getting his hands in the soil and caring for plants to learn empathy, perseverance and discipline.

Beth's faith has been well rewarded. A survey in 2011 showed that of the 117 garden program participants who were paroled between 2003 and 2009, less than 10% returned to prison or jail.

With the growth of conservative ideology, projects like the Garden Insight Program are always in jeopardy. The sad thing is, this is a program that has proven itself to work.

Fortunately, the Garden Insight Program was granted a non-profit status in 2014 and had the good fortune to receive a generous gift of $200,000 a year from an anonymous benefactor. Additional funding from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has lead to the expansion of the program to two additional state prisons. Waitkus and her team are also launching programs in Indiana and New York state.

It's heartwarming to think that gardening can help people turn their lives around.

Thanks to the Insight Garden Program for permission to use the images in this post.

More Information and Links:

Beyond Prison website

Insight Prison Project website

Read about a similar program here in Canada in this Globe and mail article

Read about "Project Soil" on The Kingston Prison Farms website

Learn about the Evergreen project to complete a community based naturalization and garden project as a transition program for federally incarcerated women in British Columbia, Canada. 

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Polka Dot Plant


As I have become a more experienced and sophisticated outdoor gardener, I have felt that there has been a shift in my attitude toward indoor plants.

While there are still a few common houseplants I'll always love, I am more decerning than I used to be. If I am going to bother of keeping indoor plants, I want them to be as interesting as my outdoor plants.

Container planting photographed on May 30th just after being potted up.

I first got to know Hypoestes Phyllostachya when I picked up a plant to use in one of my outdoor container plantings. With its pink polka dots, it struck me as a nice alternative to standard annuals.

Despite the fact that I crammed a fair bit into a modest-sized pot, all the plants performed pretty well. The only exception would be the white pansy which surrendered to the effects of the hot summer sun. The other plants took full advantage of the absence and filled in to take the pansy's place.

Same container planting photographed October 12th

As you can see the pink darkened into magenta and green became more olive over the course of the summer. When the plants in my pot got a little leggy mid-summer, I took cuttings and made even more plants.



Originally from Madagascar, Polka Dot Plants are a herbaceous perennial in their native habitat. Outdoors they that can grow up to two or three feet. Here in North America, they are generally kept as houseplants.

The main reason to grow these plants is their cheerful speckled foliage . The 'Splash' series is dotted splotches of pink, white, rose and red. The 'Confetti' series has the same color palette, but the spots are a bit more sparse.


Here are some basic tips on growing Polka Dot Plants:

Light: Bright, indirect light is their preference. Too little light may result in leggy growth. Low light can also cause colorful spots to fade and the leaves to turn solid green.

Water: Moist, but not soggy soil is best during the growing season (indoor plants have a spring and summer growing season just like outdoor plants).
In the winter, Polka Dot plants like to be just a bit drier. If your plant produces a flower and moves into a dormant phase, reduce your regular watering regime until the plant shows new signs of growth.

Heat: A cold windowsill won't do for this tropical plant. It's best to keep temperatures at least 65-70 degrees F. (18-21 degrees C.)

Fertilizer: During the spring and summer feed your plant weekly with a liquid fertilizer following the package directions.


Soil: For indoor plants use a good, well-drained potting mix. When planted outdoors as annuals, Polka Dot Plants require well-drained soil rich in organic matter.

Care: Pinching back growth will encourage a bushier plant.

Propagation: Polka Dot plants aren't particularly long-lived. Once they have flowered they will move into a dormant phase or may die altogether.
Growing new plants from cuttings is fairly easy. I tried rooting my cuttings in water, but that didn't work. Placing the cuttings right into the soil worked perfectly. Just remember to keep the soil moist and the cuttings out of the direct sun until they root and you should have no problem making new plants.

Pests: White fly, scale and aphids can be potential issues.


Polka Dot Plant's bright splashes of color are just as pretty as flowers and it's always to nice to have "flowers" inside the house when outside the garden is sleeping under the snow.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Three Eupatorium

Eupatorium altissimum

With the exception of the roses, the odd phlox and some sedum, just about everything has finished flowering in my garden. A few of my Eupatorium however, are just coming into their own. Here we are in early October and the smallest of the three (Eupatorium rugosum 'Chocolate') has only recently begun to flower.

Eupatorium are members of the large Asteraceae family. This large genus of plants contains as many as 60 species depending on the classification system used.

I grow a number of different Eupatorium, but in this post I am going to focus in on three of my favourites.

Eupatorium dubium 'Baby Joe'

Eupatorium dubium 'Baby Joe' 


To be honest I don't think this plant has particularly attractive flowers, but there is something about the way the flowers catch the light that transforms them into something quite lovely. Bees and butterflies seem to appreciate them too.

The species Eupatorium dubium is native to Eastern North America. The hybrid, 'Baby Joe', is more compact than the original native plant.

Eupatorium dubium 'Baby Joe'


Eupatorium dubium 'Baby Joe'

One of the many reasons I like 'Baby Joe' is its strong, upright, deep red stems. Overall the shape of the plant is tall and vase-like.

In full sun, 'Baby Joe' would require moist soil. My plant is in part-shade. Generally its happy with average moisture conditions. If we haven't had rain for a week or so in mid-summer, and the leaves are beginning to look a bit droopy, I will often water 'Baby Joe'. Last year we had a summer-long drought and it was one unhappy plant. 

'Baby Joe' prefers soil with lots of organic matter, but it is pretty adaptive to average, sandy or quite gravely soils.

Eupatorium dubium 'Baby Joe'

The moment the flowers show signs of going to seed, I cut them off. Plants grown from these seeds may revert to the native species rather than the hybrid form.

Height: 70-75 cm (27-29 inches), Spread: 75-90 cm (29-35 inches). USDA zones: 4-9.

Deer resistant.

Tall Boneset, Eupatorium altissimum


Eupatorium altissimum

Eupatorium altissimum is one of my favourite fall plants. It sprawls a bit wildly and leans on other plants, but I look forward to that cloud of white flowers every autumn.

Tall Boneset, Eupatorium altissimum is native to eastern and central North America where it can be found along stream banks and in damp meadows. This tall perennial has lance-shaped green leaves and clusters of white flowers in late summer/early fall.

In full sun, it needs consistent moisture. I have one plant (actually Eupatorium altissimum 'Prairie Jewel') in sun and somewhat dry conditions. It can look wilted if a week passes without rain. I really must move it if I can (reputedly they don't like to be moved). In light shade (some rest from the afternoon sun)Eupatorium altissimum will tolerate average moisture conditions much better. 

It is not super fussy about soil and will do fine in both clay and sandy soils. 


Eupatorium altissimum


One reason to grow this plant is the insects it attracts. Bees, wasps and butterflies all love this plant.

Eupatorium altissimum

Again it is important to note that this plant is a liberal self-seeder. If you don't deadhead the flowers, you may have a weedy problem on your hands!

Height: 1.2- 1.8 m (4-6 feet), Spread: 1-1.2 m (3-4 feet). USDA zones: 3-8.

Deer resistant.

Eupatorium rugosum 'Chocolate'


There's a long wait for Eupatorium rugosum 'Chocolate' to bloom, but the plant itself is so attractive you won't mind.



Eupatorium rugosum 'Chocolate' has attractive maroon-brown foliage in spring. The tops of the leaves turn olive-green as the summer progresses, but the plant's stems and the undersides of the leaves remain a nice contrasting shade of chocolate.

In full sun, 'Chocolate' will need moist soil. In part-shade it will tolerate somewhat drier conditions (once established).

Eupatorium rugosum 'Chocolate'

'Chocolate' has flat clusters of starry-white flowers in late summer/fall. It is important to deadhead the flowers to avoid self-seeding. 'Chocolate' will not come true from seed. 

Height: 90-120 cm (35-47 inches), Spread: 75-90 cm (29-35 inches). USDA zones: 5-9.

Deer resistant.

Eupatorium rugosum 'Chocolate'


A Quick Comparison of all Three Plants


Size:

Of the three Eupatorium featured in this post, Eupatorium rugosum 'Chocolate' is the shorter, smaller, bushier plant. 
'Baby Joe' is tall and fairly narrow. It would still be fine in a small garden. 
Both tall and bushy, Eupatorium altissimum requires the most space.

Shade Tolerance:

Eupatorium rugosum 'Chocolate'  will tolerate the most shade.

Moisture:

In an ideal world, all three plants prefer moist conditions. Eupatorium altissimum will survive some dry weather. Just don't ask it to be happy about it. 
Eupatorium rugosum 'Chocolate' is reputed to be the most tolerant of drier soil (once established).

Best for Insects:

Eupatorium altissimum positively hums with insects! Eupatorium rugosum 'Chocolate' seems to be the least popular of the three plants (based on my observations).

Friday, October 6, 2017

Just for the record...



Just for the record, I put up with an awful lot.


We may be low on the food chain, but rabbits are proud creatures.


Now, I have tried my absolute best to adapt to living in the company of three dogs.



The older two dogs usually ignore me, but the littlest guy... he's something else!



Thanks to him, I have not a shred of dignity left!


He nudges me with his big nose. 




And he licks my ears with his sloppy pink tongue.



Sometimes a rabbit just wants to be able to eat his parsley in peace!


To all my Canadian friends, have a wonderful Thanksgiving!
To all other friends, have a great weekend!

Thursday, September 28, 2017

A Fragrant Fall Beauty for Part-Shade/Shade


You can smell the soft white flowers long before they come into view. The perfume is commanding. It summons you to come closer. What is that marvellous scent?

The fragrance is as pungent as that of an oriental lily, but its lighter, without that dense mix of spices. Instead it's a sweet blend of honey and jasmine with just a hint of vanilla.

The common names for the plant scenting the air are anything but glamorous: Bugbane, Bugwort, Cohosh and Snakeroot. None of these seem to suit the tall, rather elegant flowers or the attractive fern-like foliage.

Even the Latin name attached to this plant for hundreds of years fails to describe it properly. A British plant hunter named it 'Cimicifuga racemosa' and sent it back to England. Modern science now shows that name to be invalid.  The plant's DNA proves it is actually member of the large Ranunculaceae family. So its proper name is 'Actaea'. This change in names is almost 20 years old, but old habits die hard, and the plant continues to be referred to by its former name 'Cimicifuga'.




Depending on the type of Actaea, the blooms don't appear until well into the summer or early fall. The flowers have no petals. Instead there are a long stamen surrounded by starburst clusters of white stigma. The common name 'Bugbane' suggests that insects dislike the flower's strong scent, but I have noticed that ants in particular are frequent visitors.

The attractive fern-like foliage that can be green, dark chocolate or even a deep eggplant color depending on the cultivar. 

Cimicifuga racemosa has creamy white flowers and green fern-like foliage. It is one of the earliest Actaea to bloom (mid-summer). Part-shade. Height:120-150 cm (47-59 inches), Spread: 60-75 cm (23-29 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

Actaea racemosa is native to eastern North America where it is found in moist woodlands. The roots of the plant have a long history of medicinal use by Native Americans. The common name 'Cohosh' is Algonquin.

Though Actaea racemosa is a native plant, most of the cultivars you'll find at your local nursery have been breed from Actaea simplex which is found in Japan and eastern Russia. It is the desirable dark leaves of the Asian Actaea that have attracted the attention of plant breeders.

A green leafed cultivar at Lost Horizon's Nursery.

In behind the bench you can see the tall spires of an Actaea. Lost Horizons Nursery.

Lost Horizons Nursery.

Actaea 'James Compton' in my garden.

How to Grow Actaea


Actaea need moist conditions first and foremost. My garden has lots of dry shade, but there is a small area that is overtop of our septic bed. Every time I do a wash or someone takes a shower that area of the garden is flushed with a generous amount of water.

In August we were away for a weekend.  On our return, I found my Actaea looking miserable and wilted. Without its regular supply of water, the leaves had become scorched by the sun. I got out the garden hose and I could almost see the Actaea sigh in relief.

Dark leafed cultivars, like the one I have in my garden, need bright shade rather than full shade for good leaf color. ("Bright shade" in my garden is filtered morning sunlight). Green-leafed varieties are better for more shaded locations.

Actaea like like rich soil that has been amened with compost or leaf mold.

Be patient. Actaea are slow to establish and may take a few years to bloom.

On the upside, these are long-lived perennials. Like Peonies, Actaea seldom need to be divided. If you want to try to divide or move them, do it in the spring. Unfortuneately the plant will take quite some time to recover.

There is good news for gardeners struggling with deer. Actaea are deer resistant.



Cultivars to watch for


Actaea simplex 'White Pearl' has lacy green foliage and creamy white flowers. Part-shade or shade. Height: 90-120 cm (35-47 inches), Spread: 60-75 cm (23-29 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

Actaea simplex 'James Compton' has white flowers tinged with pink and dark, purplish-black foliage. Part-shade. Height: 90-120 cm (35-47 inches), Spread: 60-75 cm (23-29 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

Actaea simplex 'Black Negligee' is a sexy mix of white flowers tinged with pink and dark black foliage. Bright shade brings out the best color this cultivar's foliage. Height:120-150  cm (47-59 inches), Spread: 60-75 cm (23-29 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

Actaea simplex 'Hillside Black Beauty' white flowers and has foliage that is a mix of deep purple and black. Height: 150-180 cm (59-70 inches), Spread: 60-75 cm (23-29 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

Actaea simplex 'Brunette' has pale pink flowers and foliage that is a mix of purplish and black tones. Part-shade. 150-180 cm (59-70 inches), Spread: 60-75 cm (23-29 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

Companion Plants


Any plant that likes moist, part-shade or shade can be planted alongside an Actaea. 

Early in the spring, perennials like primroses and Tiarella provide blooms that would play off the lacy foliage of an Actaea nicely.


Tiarella 'Sugar and Spice' has pink buds that open into fragrant white flowers that bloom in the early spring. This plant likes moist conditions and sandy or clay soil. Part-shade to full shade. Height: 20-35 cm (8-14 inches), Spread: 25-30 cm (10-12 inches). USDA zones: 4-9.


Japanese Painted Fern, Athyrium 'Silver Falls' 

Ferns also make excellent companion plants.

Japanese Anemone


There are also a number of perennials that bloom around the same time. Japanese Anemones, Phlox and Toad Lilies are just a few examples.

Toad lily, Tricyrtis hirta has star-shaped flowers on arching stems. The flowers are tiny so Toad lilies are best planted at the front of a flowerbed where they can be appreciated up close.  This plant likes the same moist conditions. Part-shade to full shade. Height: 60-90 cm (23-35 inches), Spread: 45-60 cm (18-23 inches). USDA zones: 4-9.



In my garden, Actaea 'James Compton' is surrounded by a number of late bloomers. Hydrangea 'Little Lime' (Sun) is to one side. (Note: The hydrangea is just that little bit further out from under the Black Walnut tree and gets a bit more sun. It too loves the moist conditions).

Tall Boneset, Eupatorium altissimum

Boneset, Eupatorium altissimum (Full sun or light shade) forms a big, white cloud in the background. Phlox 'Creme de Menthe' (Sun or part shade) also flowers in September. (If you can't find this cultivar, 'Norah Leigh' is very similar.)

Phlox 'Creme de Menthe'



I love the way Actaea simplex 'James Compton' fills the garden with perfume each autumn, but even if it never bloomed, the attractive foliage makes Actaea a perennial well worth growing.