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Amy Mullen is a hybrid of urban gardener and steampunker

Steampunk Amy Mullen is an urban gardener in disguise. Photo supplied by Amy Mullen

Steampunk Amy Mullen is an urban gardener in disguise. Photo supplied by Amy Mullen

Last weekend, urban gardener Amy Mullen traded her jeans for a corset and gown at the Indianapolis Steampunk Society’s Steampunk Through the Looking Glass at the Columbia Club.

Is there a relationship between growing your own food on a small city lot and steampunking? Yes, she said.

“Steampunk is a reaction to mass production, entertainment technology and homogenous design,” said Mullen, 42, who holds degrees in physics and management from DePauw University.

Steampunk celebrates the individual craftsman and appreciates technology you can look at and see how it works. The farm-to-fork movement is one response to outsourcing growing food to industrial agriculture. “With gardening, we recapture the skills we lost. There’s a streak of individualism and creativity that runs through both gardening and steampunking,” Mullen said.

Since buying her home in Irvington in 2000, Mullen has embraced the role of urban gardener. She has converted her city lot into an urban farm with vegetables and fruit trees in the front yard and two chickens cooped in the back.

Amy Mullen's front yard is planted with vegetables and fruit trees. She posts signs for neighbors to pick strawberries when the crop is more than she can use. Photo courtesy Amy Mullen

Amy Mullen’s front yard is planted with vegetables and fruit trees. She posts signs for neighbors to pick strawberries when the crop is more than she can use. Photo courtesy Amy Mullen

Among the challenges of city gardening: Soil contamination, fighting squirrels, birds and cats and preventing people from traipsing through your garden.

The rewards are more than food on the table, though. “Because I moved my food garden to front of house where sun is best, I have met a lot of neighbors. That builds bonds. I get anonymous thank you notes,” especially for the strawberries she allows people to pick, she said.

For beginners with gardens in town or in the ‘burbs, Mullen recommends “starting small, something every gardener in history has been told. If you are interested in food, one 4-by-4 foot garden can provide salad crops for two adults all season.” She also suggests researching what you want to grow to increase your ability to succeed.

Amy Mullen orders seeds for her urban garden under the supervision of Fiona, her cat. Photo courtesy Ginny Mullen

Amy Mullen orders seeds for her urban garden under the supervision of Fiona, her cat. Photo courtesy Ginny Mullen

Her favorite plants are lavender, especially ‘Munstead’, because of the color and fragrance, and ‘Provence’ for its length of wands for crafts.

Gardening occupies Mullen’s day, too, as a designer for Spotts Garden Service, an Irvington company that aligns with her philosophy of organic and sustainable practices.

An Indianapolis native, Mullen comes from a long line of teachers and Spotts has opened up opportunities for her to share information. She teaches about gardening at farmers market and other venues. And, she blogs at fraudulentfarmgirl.com and at spottsgardens.com.

“Just don’t panic. Gardening is not an exact science. There’s a lot of trial and error and fun in the process,” she said.

Living landscape: more than plants are alive

Hummingbird moth. (C) Bob Judson/bugwood

Native moths and butterflies will be the topic of one of Doug Tallamy’s talks at the Horticultural Symposium at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Feb. 21, 2015. Above is a hummingbird moth visiting a bee balm (Monarda). (C) Bob Judson/bugwood

When you see or hear the words “living landscape,” what do you think? That all the plants are alive? But the term is much broader than just plants, although flora plays a key role.

Indeed, a living landscape teams with insects, birds and other wildlife.

One of the best ways to support a living landscape is with diverse plantings of annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees, which provide food and shelter for wildlife and beauty for you.

That’s precisely the topic of the annual symposium by the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s Division of Environmental & Historic Preservation.

The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden begins at 8 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 21 in The Toby at the IMA. Advance registration is required.

Doug Tallamy’s keynote will be about how gardeners can create a biodiverse landscape. He also will speak about the role of moth and butterfly species as pollinators. Tallamy is co-author of The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden, published by Timber Press. A professor at the University of Delaware, has been a popular and frequent speaker in Indiana since his award-winning book Bringing Nature Home was published in 2009, also by Timber Press.

Kevin Tungesvick, a restoration ecologist at Spence Restoration Nursery in Anderson, Indiana, will talk about lesser-known native plants that support wildlife. Jim McCormac, an award-winning birder, photographer and author with the Ohio Division of Wildlife, examines the best native plants for feeding the birds.

A lot of gardeners rely on perennials as the native plants in their gardens.

“While many native plant species make good garden plants, certainly not all are ideal,” said Irvin Etienne, horticultural display coordinator at the IMA and a director of the Perennial Plant Association.

“Breeders and plant hunters have come up with many nativars (native plus cultivar equals nativar) that do make excellent garden plants,” said Etienne, who will speak about Nativars – Strangers in a Strange Land.

“Sometimes these are simply selections found out in nature and other times they are planned hybrids. Since these plants are going into ornamental gardens rather than natural areas, their aesthetic qualities become equal to their native heritage. Indeed, sometimes they become strangers in a strange land,” he said.

A fond farewell to Organic Gardening magazine

organic gardening edit coverThe last issue of Organic Gardening is on the shelves now. Rodale, the name synonymous with all-things organic, will relaunch Organic Gardening  as Organic Living with a May-June issue.

This last issue is an obituary, of sorts, for yet another gardening magazine. The magazine is being rebranded, so it’s not going away completely. The Rodale spin is the new magazine will encompass what’s now become a lifestyle.

“Organic is now about so much more than gardening. It’s about your whole life – your home, your health, and our future together on this beautiful amazing Earth,” wrote Maria Rodale, chairman and chief executive officer of Rodale Inc., and granddaughter of the founder, in the magazine’s farewell letter. Rodale publishes several popular magazines: Men’sHealth, Women’sHealth, Running!, Prevention, Runners and Bicycling, as well as many books.

In some ways, we’ve come a long way since the late J.I. Rodale founded Organic Gardening in May 1942. “One of these fine days, the public is going to wake up and will pay or eggs, meats, vegetables, etc., according to how they were produced,” he wrote.

At the time, J.I. Rodale and his promotion of organic practices bucked the trend toward widespread acceptance of pesticide use in agriculture. Today, his notions of composting, building the soil, avoiding pesticides, eating fresh food and living in a sustainable manner have moved beyond trendy to commonplace.

Many of us are concerned about how our food is grown, how far it has to travel to get to our table, food safety, freshness and the humane treatment of the animals we eat. From Walmart to Whole Foods, grocers promote their organic produce and other selections. Many vendors at farmers markets specialize in organic food. The USDA now has an organic food label for products that meet certain standards.

Of course, there are still issues. Many of us grab the spray of the day for an insect or disease because of aesthetics rather than harm to a plant as we model the perfect flowers, fruit and vegetables we know from the agriculture model. And we want to know what our packaged food is made of. A bill has been introduced again this year in the Indiana General Assembly that would require labeling on food if an ingredient is a genetically modified organism, or GMO.

So, I sadly bid adieu to Organic Gardening, a magazine that has been inspiring me since I started writing this column in 1989. And, I’m proud to continue providing readers information about practical, natural and organic practices for your gardens and landscape.

Plants to support bees in spring, summer and fall

Bees visit crocus in early spring. (C) Kernel/Dollarphotoclub.com

Bees visit crocus in early spring. (C) Kernel/Dollarphotoclub.com

If you are worried about the decline of bees in your landscape, there are some things you can do to encourage their presence – plant flowers. There are a lot, but here are six of my favorite perennials:

Spring

Crocus offers some of the first tastes of nectar and pollen for foraging bees on sunny, warm days. The visitors are bees that wintered over in holes, hives and crevices, and they need early season nourishment to build up their broods. Crocus can be grown in sun or shade, even in the lawn.

Dandelion is another early season plant that help bees get a start on their hives and summer work. (C) Vvoe/Dollarphotoclub.com

Dandelion is another early season plant that help bees get a start on their hives and summer work. (C) Vvoe/Dollarphotoclub.com

I know we all think dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is a weed, but it’s another early bloomer that supports bumblebees and honeybees. It won’t hurt to allow a few to bloom. Remove the spent flowers before they go to seed and once other plants are blooming in the garden, remove the dandelions.

Summer

Calamint (Calamintha nepeta subsp. nepeta) is probably one of the longest blooming perennials in the garden. This underused species has fragrant, showy, white to pinkish flowers from June into September. It needs full sun and well-drained soil. Calamint behaves nicely, staying in a tidy clump about 18 inches tall and 24 inches wide. There are cultivars available, including ‘Blue Cloud’. Reported to be deer resistant and, once established, calamint is drought tolerant.

There are several North America native hyssop (Agastache spp.), sometimes called hummingbird mint, which bees and hummingbirds love. The foliage has a minty fragrance. ‘Honey Bee Blue’ and ‘Blue Fortune’ (A. foeniculum) are reliable, long-blooming perennials. My favorites are the slightly less hardy hyssop (A. rupestris), such as ‘Apache Sunset.’ Gardeners frequently grow these hyssops as long-blooming annuals. Plant hyssop in full sun and well-drained soil. Hyssop is deer and drought tolerant, once established.

Calamint in a long-blooming perennials that serves as a bee magnet. (C) Carol Michel/MayDreamsGardens.com

Calamint in a long-blooming perennials that serves as a bee magnet. (C) Carol Michel/MayDreamsGardens.com

Fall

'T Rex' sedum and many other sedums are late season food sources for bees, butterflies and other pollinators. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

‘T Rex’ sedum and many other sedums are late season food sources for bees, butterflies and other pollinators. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Tall sedum is a pollinator magnet in late summer and early fall. The popular Autumn Joy (Hylotelephium ‘Herbstfreude’) attracts butterflies, bees and beneficial wasps. The seedheads dry to offer winter interest. Sedum is very drought tolerant. Grow this perennial in full sun and average, but well-drained soi.

Boltonia (B. asteroides), sometimes called false aster, is another native perennial that late-season bees, butterflies and other important insects fly to. ‘Snow Bank’ is a readily available cultivar. Grow boltonia in full sun to part shade. It tolerates wet soil. Surround it with other plants to camouflage this 3-foot tall specimen’s shrubby bottom.

Flowers on the menu = Tasty ingredient

Pansies and violas are the perfect floral complement in a salad of fresh spring greens and feta cheese. ©Wiktory/iStockphoto

Pansies and violas are the perfect floral complement in a salad of fresh spring greens and feta cheese. ©Wiktory/iStockphoto

As restaurants embrace farm-to-table fare, gardeners need to celebrate their own backyard bounty.

We already know about tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans and lettuces, but there are more than vegetables to grace your table.

Think flowers.

Last spring, I had lunch at Courses restaurant atop the former Stouffer’s Hotel, now home of Ivy Tech’s Corporate College and Culinary Center. Besides the great bird’s-eye view of the city, one of the nice things about the delicious meal was the salad, which featured lettuces, herbs and flowers grown on the grounds of the campus at Fall Creek Parkway and Meridian Street.

Flowers? You, the unadventurous eater, ate flowers, you ask?

Yes, indeed. This time, it was the slightly sweet, slightly crunchy taste of violas and pansies. This was not my first taste of edible flowers. I’ve eaten peppery nasturtium in salads, enjoyed lavender ice cream and shortbread cookies and, in Grenada, imbibed a glass of very sweet sorrel, made from Roselle hibiscus flowers (H. sabdariffa).

“Roselle can also act as a diuretic, so it should be taken in small doses,” wrote Denise Schreiber in her book, Eat Your Roses: Pansies, Lavender and 49 other Delicious Edible Flowers (St. Lynn’s Press, $17.95).

eat roses coverSchreiber’s book provides other cautions, such as you should avoid eating anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), if you are pregnant. At 7 by 6 inches, spiral bound and full or tips on harvesting, uses and recipes, it fits right on the shelf of cookbooks.

Her book reminds us that we actually consume flowers and leaves in teas, such as chamomile, rose hip and jasmine. And then there’s that bean we grind to make our morning elixir.

Edible flowers should always be pesticide free and grown for culinary use. Many edible plants have delicious flowers, worth the sacrifice of a few zucchini and other produce. These include the blooms of squash, onion, radish and just about any herb. Garden pea (Pisum sativum) flowers and shoots are all the rage right now, but don’t confuse these with sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus), which despite its name, is poisonous.

This brings up an important point about eating flowers, leaves and other parts of plants: Know what you are eating. If you don’t know what it is, don’t eat it. Always go by the scientific, not the common, names when looking for edible flowers.

Lots of grocery stores and farmers markets offer edible flowers, if you don’t want to grow your own. Avoid flowers from florists because you don’t know if they’ve been treated with pesticides.

Evergreen perennials for the Midwest garden

The grasslike 'Evergold' sedge is evergreen, too. It was left in this container to add another color and texture to a winter arrangement, it's third season in a pot. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

The grasslike ‘Evergold’ sedge is evergreen, too. It was left in this container to add another color and texture to a winter arrangement, it’s third season in a pot. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Say evergreens and most people think pine, spruce or arborvitae. But several perennials fall into this category, including a couple of grass-like plants.

Sedge

Sure, sedge (Carex spp.) can be a weed, but there’s a whole bunch of these grasses that have been cultivated and made garden worthy. Some are native, too. Not only are many sedges evergreen, they are tolerant of dry, wet, sun and shade.

Probably the most readily available is ‘Ice Dance’ (C. morrowii). The narrow green and white blades perk up containers or perform like a pro as an edging on a garden bed. Sedges also can serve as a ground cover.

A great place to see a large planting of a native sedge is outside the Deer-Zink Pavilion at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. A large bed is planted with Pennsylvania sedge (C. pensylvanica), a shade tolerant beauty that looks great all year.

Sedges bloom, but their flowers, although attractive, are not particularly showy. I don’t cut them off. There are several yellow or gold cultivars, too, including ‘Evergold’ (C. oshimensis). Most sedges range 8 to 15 inch tall.

Lilyturf

Along the same ideas as sedge is lilyturf (Liriope spp.), another grass-like ground cover that gets about 12 inches tall. It, too, tolerates sun or shade, but its spike of blue flowers is showy in late summer, followed by black berries.

There are two types of lilyturf, one that spread by underground rhizomes (L. spicata) and one that is a clump grower (L. muscari). To help hold soil on a hillside or to cover a challenging areas, the spreading one would be ideal. The clump grower, a popular one is ‘Big Blue’, works well in many applications, including as a year-round container plant.

Coral bells

I can’t say enough good about coral bells (Heuchera spp.) because the come in so many leaf colors and forms. Found only in North America, coral bells are prized as much for their foliage as they are the blooms.

In fact, as breeders worked on this plant, the foliage got all the attention to the detriment of the flowers. But new introductions, such as ‘Berry Timeless’, have an improved floral show.

Coral bell foliage may change color as it moves through the season, but even in winter, there’s a presence in the landscape, even under snow. Coral bells are very shade tolerant, but prefer well-drained soil.

Heirloom or hybrid?

Pink Brandywine tomato is credited with sparking interest in  heirlooms. Photo courtesy Bonnie Plants

Pink Brandywine tomato is credited with sparking interest in heirlooms. Photo courtesy Bonnie Plants

If you’ve been perusing the mail order garden catalogs or online websites, you may have come across some confusing or unfamiliar terms.

Take heirloom, for instance. An heirloom vegetable or flower has been in cultivation for at least 50 years. Heirlooms also are open pollinated. To understand open pollination, we need a bit of botany, said seed merchants Renee Shepherd of reneesgarden.com and Patty Buskirk of seedsbydesign.com in their ezfromseed.com newsletter.

The flowers produced by plants are either perfect or imperfect. Perfect means male and female parts are in the same flower. A tomato is an example of a perfect flower. Imperfect means the plant produces separate male and female flowers. Squash is an example of a plant that does this.

“Regardless, the pollen must be transferred from the male organ of the flower to the female organ in order for seeds to form. This can happen by wind or with the help of pollinating insects like bees,” Shepherd said.

An advantage of open pollinated plants is that the seeds they produce will generally come true when replanted.

Big Beef, a 1994 All-America Selections, is a hybrid that is  resistant to several diseases that affect tomatoes.

Big Beef, a 1994 All-America Selections, is a hybrid that is resistant to several diseases that affect tomatoes.

A hybrid is the cross pollination of two or more plants to breed for certain characteristics, such as sweeter or more plentiful peppers or disease resistant cucumbers. Hybrids have been around for decades – remember Gregor Mendel and peas? Seeds from hybrids are viable, but will not likely come true, reverting to one of the parent plants.

Many gardeners extol the flavors of heirlooms, asserting that a lot of umami is bred out of hybridized tomatoes for the sake of consistent size and color. And with flowers, the first attribute to go in hybridizing is frequently fragrance.

Many hybrid plants have been bred to fend off diseases, such as tomatoes rated F or V, indicating resistance to fusarium and verticillium wilt. This does not mean hybrids are genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. There are few, if any, GMO vegetables for home gardeners.

Can you have an organic garden if you don’t use certified organic seeds? “Yes! In your own garden, you want a safe environment with healthy and nutritious plants,” Shepherd said.

To achieve that: Maintain healthy soil, follow effective organic gardening techniques, use certified organic fertilizers and look for alternatives to chemical pest and disease controls.

Unless a seed is specifically labeled as treated, which is very rare in the home garden seed market, it has not been treated with pesticides or fungicides, she said.

Celebrate the 2015 Color of the Year with marsala-colored plants for the garden

img_pantone_edit color_of_the_year_2015_press_releaseIf marsala wine is known for anything, it’s cooking. Marsala chicken, anyone?

But, Pantone, the powers that be in all-things-color, picked the its hue to celebrate in 2015. “A naturally robust and earth wine red, marsala enriches our minds, bodies and souls,” Pantone explains.

Fortunately, unlike other Colors of the Year, such as turquoise in 2010, the selection of marsala is an easy ingredient to get in the fashion-forward garden.

First, there’s the food angle. Robert Scheer, the Indianapolis Star’s Wine Dude, tells us “Marsala is pure Sicily. Whether sweet or dry styles, they’re great for cooking into Italian favorites, and can be wonderful when combined with garden offerings, like shallots, and fresh herbs, like rosemary. If you sip marsala, you might taste flavors of vanilla, walnut, brown sugar or apricot.”

Sounds tasty.

(C) Valeniker/Dollarphotoclub.com

(C) Valeniker/Dollarphotoclub.com

Shallots are a worthwhile, onion- garlic-like bulb to grow. More mild than garlic, shallots demand a pretty penny at the grocery or farmers markets, but they are very easy to grow from a bulb or seed. These foodie favorites and can be planted in spring or fall.

Rosemary, of course, is not winter hardy here, so a lot of us grow this herb in a pot outdoors in summer so we can bring it indoors in winter. Whatever you do, don’t let the soil dry out. Rosemary is not a very forgiving plant.

Marooned coleus. Photo courtesy Proven Winners

Marooned coleus. Photo courtesy Proven Winners

 

At the plant level, I couldn’t find anything named marsala, but there are lots with wine in their moniker: Dipt in Wine coleus, Summer Wine ninebark, Wine & Roses weigela, Charmed Wine oxalis, Imperial Wine dahlia and Royal Plum Wine verbena.

Charmed wine oxalis. Photo courtesy Proven Winners

Charmed wine oxalis. Photo courtesy Proven Winners

If the name isn’t an issue, you can get that marsala color in the garden with Marooned coleus, one of my favorites. You can also work a few wine-colored pots, rug or pillows into the scene to confirm your fashion sense. Oh, and don’t forget the wine!

January garden checklist

 

Waiting for the beautiful red amaryllis to bloom. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Indoors

General Landscape

  • Keep road and sidewalk salt away from plants. If necessary, screen the plants with burlap to keep off spray. Calcium chloride products are recommended over sodium chloride to melt ice. Sand, cinders, ash and fresh kitty litter also may be used instead of ice-melting salts.
  • Prune summer and fall blooming woody plants, including vines, shrubs and trees.
  • Use hand or a broom to gently brush away heavy snow that may accumulate on shrubs before it freezes.
  • new growthApply an all-purpose natural fertilizer or a dusting of compost around spring-flowering bulbs as they break ground.

Vegetables and Fruits

  • Examine produce, tender flower bulbs and roots stored for the winter to make sure there is no rot, shriveling or excess moisture. Remove and discard damaged material.

Extension and Master Gardener volunteers help others grow

From the left: Master Gardeners Karen Kennedy, Sharon Gamble and Carolyn McMahon.

From the left: Master Gardeners Karen Kennedy, Sharon Gamble and Carolyn McMahon. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

This was the year that cooperative extension services throughout the United States celebrated their 100th anniversary.

Although we may consider cooperative extension a purely American service, the practice of disseminating agriculture information to farmers goes back 2,000 years in Chinese culture. The idea of crop rotation was introduced in China in 800 BC.

Ireland is credited with launching modern extension services in the mid-1800s, primarily spurred by the great potato famine. Oxford and Cambridge universities embraced the notion of university extension, which took knowledge beyond the campuses in the 1860s.

Here in the United States, cooperative extension services fall under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and are lodged in land-grant colleges, such as Purdue University. Extension services became part of federal law in 1914 with the Smith-Lever Act. The idea was to share information with the public about agriculture, home economics, 4-H and public policy. Funding for extension activities is a mix of federal, state and local dollars, grants and donations.

Today, gardening, community development, family financial fitness, leadership and resource conservation are as much or more a part of extension services as agriculture. Here in Marion County, 4-H focuses on science, technology, engineering, art and math – skills incorporated into an active robotics program, for example.

Of course, my primary intersection with extension is through the Master Gardener program. These frequently unseen volunteers work in many important landscapes in the city, including the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site, the Indianapolis City Market, the Indianapolis Museum of Art and Cold Spring School, IPS’ environmental studies magnet. They conduct many free garden- and nature-related programs and workshops for the public.

Steve Mayer, the coordinator of Marion County Master Gardeners, says of the 390 members, 285 are active volunteers. So far this year, they have donated 14,572 hours to beautify and educate the community about gardening. “This wouldn’t be the most accurate number for 2014 because a lot of people haven’t reported all of their hours, yet,” Mayer said.

So, as we round out 2014 and head into 2015, I thank Purdue’s extension services and especially Master Gardeners, for all of their good work and wish them all the best for another hundred years.