Photo and article by Donna Iverson
Garlic chives are pretty and edible. Easy to grow. A heritage plant with a long history. And they escape to the wild at every opportunity. My kind of plant.
Sometimes called Chinese leaks, as that is where they originated thousands of years ago, garlic chives are a perennial usually grown from seed in the spring.
Garlic chives are both a veggie and an ornamental for many types of gardens, including rock gardens, kitchen gardens, white gardens, medicinal gardens or as a container plant.
More garlic than chive, they, nevertheless, belong to the onion family, Allium. Unlike regular garlic, these plants have no bulb underground. Come fall, they will self-seed and the next year, the harvest will double. In fact, they can become invasive. They are winter tolerant so you will have a supply year round.
Both the flowers and the stems are edible. At the most basic, you can just snip tiny pieces of stem onto a salad or use as a sandwich enhancer. Toss them into soups, stews, stir fries or your scrambled eggs. Add during the end of the cooking process to retain their fresh flavor.
Garlic chives are rich in Vitamins A, B6, B12 and C, along with potassium, calcium and Carotene. In Chinese medicine, garlic is one of five healing foods along with onion, lemon, red peppers, and honey. The plant contains antifungal, antiparasitic, and anticarcinogenic agents. It is also an antioxidant and may help reduce blood pressure.
In Celtic times, garlic was hung in doorways on Halloween (Samhain) to ward off evil spirits. I suspect garlic chives would work just as well and look a lot better.
And if you could care less about garlic chives as either food or medicine, it may appeal to your artistic sensibilities. It did to Vincent Van Gogh who painted Flower Pot with Garlic Chives 1887. The painting hangs in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and can be seen online at
Seeds of Garlic Chives are available from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, at firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 417.924.8917 in Missouri.
Photo and article by Donna Iverson
Last summer, a vendor was selling slices of watermelon at the Muskegon Farmers Market. I almost always sprung for one because a full size watermelon was too heavy for me to carry.
But this fall, several market vendors are selling personal-sized round watermelons that weigh about 5 pounds. I’m hooked and they are delicious.
Earlier in the summer, the round watermelons were yellow inside, almost like a large cantaloupe. By August, red flesh ones appeared, and like the yellow ones, they were seedless. Well not really seedless, they contained small white seeds that were edible and hardly noticeable.
I was intrigued. Were these a new variety of watermelon?? And why had they suddenly become popular?
Turns out, they haven’t suddenly become popular but have been growing in popularity for the last 15 years. My guess is that they fill a need as they are easier to carry and can be consumed by one or two persons at a meal.
The trend in watermelons is definitely toward a smaller and smaller size. These small round watermelons are called icebox watermelons and can weigh between 5 and 15 pounds. They fit in your refrigerator and are perfect for a small family.
Locally, I’m also seeing more and more small round watermelons growing in neighbors’ gardens. According to growers, they are not that difficult to grow nor does it take a huge garden space.
Their best advice is to grow round watermelon from seed and I would recommend an heirloom variety. The basic requirements for growing include warm soil, three months of hot sunny weather, and frequent watering and feeding. More details on growing, watermelon, their pests and harvesting can be found at tropicalpermaculture.com
As for the history of the watermelon, amazingly it goes back 5000 years to Africa. There, watermelon grew in the wild, and was originally round. Egyptians breed these wild fruits to increase their sweetness, eventually turning the pale yellow insides to bright red. The redder the melon, the sweeter the taste. They also favored the oblong shape.
Interesting watermelon facts:
Photo and article by Donna Iverson
This summer, I felt a need to grow basic garden food ..green beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and potatoes. Social media was reporting possible food shortages so I turned my focus away from herbs and native flowers to organic edibles.
Lucky for me, a fellow community gardener was planting seed potatoes and I asked him if he could spare one so I could give it a go. He graciously handed me a sliced-off segment of potato and told me to plant it 4 inches deep with the eyes pointing up. Another gardener advised me to mulch for protection.
Soon a plant appeared and in less than two months I had a dozen small potatoes pushing up through the soil. But they were blue? Were they sick?
Back to my source whose name is Allen Steffen, an expert in everything gardening even though he modestly denies it. Maybe like me, although he has been gardening for years, he still feels like a beginner as there is always so much to learn.
So why are the potatoes blue? I asked him via email. They are an Adirondack blue variety, he replied.
According to Wikipedia, Adirondack blue and red potatoes were developed by three Cornell scientists back in 2003. Robert Plaisted, Ken Paddock, and Walter De Jong introduced the variety to gardeners as a specialty potato high in antioxidants.
These potatoes are most easily grown from seed potatoes, Steffen said. You can purchase Adirondack blue seeds online from catalogs, but Steffen has not had any luck growing them that way. A check online, shows the Adirondack blue seeds sold out in 2020.
These speciality potatoes need less than two months to mature. As advised by Steffen, plant the cut up spuds about four inches deep and mulch for protection. Each plant produces about a half dozen small potatoes which push their way up through the soil in late summer, when the leaves die back as they reach maturity.
As for taste, Steffen said he preferred the red Adirondacks to the blues as do I. Maybe it is the sight of blue mashed potatoes that influenced my tastebuds. Next time, I will try the recommended potato soup. ...then again, blue soup??
Although this is a relatively new variety, blue potatoes date back thousands of years. They are heirloom plants native to South America and are members of the nightshade family, as are tomatoes and blueberries. A warning: eating too many nightshades can make for sore joints in some people.
But at least one group has found a popular use for them. The alumni of Penn state sell Adirondack blue potato chips to raise money for their athletic program.
Photo and article by Donna Iverson
I’ve never had much luck growing cucumber but I keep trying. Cucumbers are a favorite salad addition, a simple cucumber salad is always welcome, and sometimes when I’m looking for a snack, cucumbers are my healthiest choice.
So I’m always disappointed when my garden cucumber plants wither on the vine, or attract pests that eat the leaves, or just don’t produce fruit. And yes, cucumbers are a fruit not a vegetable.
So this summer, it was thrilling when my cucumber plants thrived and produced cucumber after cucumber. The only problem was the cucumbers looked more like lemons than cucumbers. What was going on?
In previous years, I had purchased cucumber seedlings or friends had offered me their surplus plants. But in late winter of 2020, I ordered cucumber seeds from a catalog that featured heirloom varieties. I guess I wasn’t paying close attention and inadvertently checked the box for lemon cucumbers. We were in the early weeks of a global pandemic and my brain wasn’t fully functioning. When the packets and spring arrived, I sowed the little pellet-like seeds into my community garden bed. And waited and watered.
Eventually a couple of hardy plants appeared with strong stems and healthy looking prickly leaves. And then cucumbers began to grow. But they didn’t look like cucumbers. They looked like lemons. Huh??
Back to the catalog to double check my order. No the seed company had not made a mistake. I had clearly ordered lemon cucumber seeds.
So what exactly are lemon cucumbers? Officially, they are categorized as Cucumis sativus and also referred to by some gardeners as apple cucumbers and garden lemons. A cucumber that doesn’t want to be a cucumber?
When one was large enough to pick, I brought it home and began slicing. I took a bite expecting a lemony flavor. But even though it looked like a lemon, it tasted like a mild cucumber. And every lemon cucumber that matured on the vine, proved as mild as the one before. So, it has won a place in my garden as the first cucumber to survive to maturity and for its mild, non-bitter flavor.
Curious about its history, I learned that the lemon cucumber was introduced to this country in the late 1800s. It is popular in Indian food, where it is used to make a soup called Daal and added to chutney.
Out West, it is considered a specialty crop and if you grow lemon cucumbers you can download an app and sell your lemon cukes to restaurants, especially near San Diego.
Growing them requires well drained soil and a sunny spot. They need regular watering or they develop into odd shapes ..unlike the pleasing yellow rounded shape that you are looking for. They prefer temperatures of between 65 and 75 degrees and wither in hot weather. They also will not tolerate even a light frost.
Lemon cucumbers must be eaten in a couple of days and are best kept in the refrigerator wrapped in a paper towel inside a plastic bag.
Photo and article by Donna Iverson
There is one flowering plant in my community garden that continually draws my attention. It’s called Moonflower and sports spectacularly large white flowers that beg to be noticed. It most likely self-seeded itself inside the fence that surrounds the garden.
Mysterious and romantic, Moonflower is native to North and South America. Often found along the roadside or in waste places, this heirloom is considered a weed by many. But not this gardener. Night flowering plants have always intrigued me, like evening primrose, night-blooming jasmine, nicotiana, and evening primrose. And like all night-blooming plants, it’s scent is intoxicating
Plus I admire its ability to jump the fence and ingratiate itself alongside the cultivated flowers and vegetables.
As its name implies, Moonflower is a nocturnal plant. If you are an early riser, you will see it’s giant white trumpet-like flowers open to the sky. As the sun rises, these otherworldly blooms slowly close and become large cone shaped buds.
Symbolically, Moonflower is considered a sacred visionary plant that leads to creative insights emerging out of the darkness.
A member of the bindweed family, it’s closest cousins are the morning glories. Not surprisingly, Moonflower is sometimes called a tropical white morning glory. It is drought tolerant, deer resistant, and low maintenance. It can be grown in a container on your patio or back deck. Place in full sun.
The Moonflower attracts moths and bees, which pollinate the plant. A word of warning: Moonflower is toxic, all parts, flowers, leaves, stem and root. So if you have children or pets that like to nibble, best to avoid it.
Come fall, the Moonflower will produce hundreds of seeds which look like small brown nuts. Collect these for spring plantings. If you don’t collect the seeds, Moonflower will self seed anyway in multiple locations.
Moonflowers would work in an heirloom native garden, in a white garden, in a night garden and a xeriscape garden. Or perhaps you prefer it as an accent plant. Wherever it is placed, it will call attention to itself.
August gardening tip: difficult to believe but it’s time to think about fall planting. Some seeds and seedlings that can be planted in mid to late August include: arugula, beets, kale, radishes and spinach.
Photo and article by Donna Iverson
When I go to a farmers market, the first vendors I look for are the Amish. These are people who know how to grow healthy food, especially if they advertise themselves as organic farmers.
In late spring, the Amish were missing from my closest farmers market and I missed their produce, their friendly manner and their wit. In one encounter, a young Amish man responded to my comment that I loved beans, with “Love is a pretty strong word for beans.”
So as I meandered down the rows of early spring vegetables, I stopped immediately at a table full of seedlings marked “Amish tomatoes.”
With no Amish produce for purchase, I decided to grow my own.
The small seedlings were transplanted to my community gardening bed in late April. Fellow gardeners told me it was too early and I might lose them. But in April of 2020, I needed to see something growing and especially something Amish. They represented survival, resilience and simple beauty. And lucky for me, they made it,
Once they started growing, I became curious. What made a tomato Amish and what exactly had I purchased?
As a college history major, I first checked their origin. According to Wikipedia, Amish tomatoes originated in the 1870s in the oldest Amish community in Wisconsin. Well, it wasn’t Michigan but it was a close neighbor.
An heirloom variety, Amish tomatoes are acorn shaped and grown for making tomato paste. They are thick of texture and have few seeds with a unique tangy sweet flavor.
Slow to ripen, they need about six hours of sunshine and like many heirlooms, are drought tolerant. Belonging to the indeterminate category, they grow quite tall and need strong support like cages or wooden stakes. Once they start to ripen, you will get a slow steady supply instead of one large harvest.
My first Amish tomato is just starting to ripen, as it has slowly turned from pale orange to a bright red. I am loath to pick it, as I enjoy seeing it beaming out from my garden bed as if greeting me with hope. So I leave it be for now, because hope is no small gift in the summer of 2020.
Article and photo by Donna Iverson
The trend in gardening for decades has favored hybrid plants and vegetables that are bigger, brighter, and more easily transportable. The price for this enhancement is that these hybrids have often lost their flavor and aroma. For example, numerous giant rose varieties have no scent and winter hothouse tomatoes ...no flavor.
As a contrarian, my preference has always been for the smaller, taster, and more fragrant native plants.
So when it comes to strawberries, it’s the wild strawberry that I seek out. Like all native wild plants, it is sweeter and more nutritious. It is also low maintenance requiring less water than cultivated strawberries. In addition, it deters weeds.
Best of all, the taste is superb: pop a miniature red berry into your mouth and savor its strong strawberry sweet tartness.
If you are lucky, you may find wild strawberries growing like a weed near where you live. If not, you can purchase wild strawberries ( Fragaria Vesca), often called alpine strawberries, at local nurseries. It is possible to grow them from seed but not easy. Seeds can be purchased from a few catalog companies like prairiemoon.com
Wild strawberries are a cool season crop producing berries in early summer, from April through June. A local patch near me hasn’t gotten the message about hot weather, and is producing handfuls of berries during July,
Wild strawberries might make a wonderful addition to your yard, perhaps as a ground cover or as edging. It also does well in hanging basket and the transitional strawberry pot on your deck or back step,
To propagate wild strawberry, clip a runner from an existing plant and transfer it to your garden, watering well until it is established. Once it has taken hold, it will likely need watering during hot dry spells like we are having here in West Michigan.
One of the delights of wild strawberries, is that you pretty much have to eat it as soon as you pick it. It doesn’t keep in the refrigerator. Although a friend says she freezes wild strawberries and makes wild strawberry jam.
And for you foragers out there, wild strawberry is one of the sweetest most delectable fruits you will ever come across
Photos and article by Donna Iverson
As the pandemic summer rolls on, I am finding myself drawn to the garden as sanctuary. Instead of focusing on weeds, watering, and insect pests, I look forward to garden visits for its calming effect.
In previous summers, I had a garden “to do” list. But now, my highest priority is to connect with the garden itself as a sort of meditative practice. It has become an escape hatch, a way to disconnect from stress and worry.
In tai chi, you learn to look at the world through “soft eyes.” Instead of narrowly focusing in on garden details like tomato plants, you open your field of vision to as wide a perspective as possible.
Next you engage all your senses. Listening for the breeze in the nearby trees, smelling the green emitting from the plants, touching the soft stem of the cucumber, snipping an arugula leaf to taste its tangy flavor and looking at how the sunshine plays among your plants.
Grounding is also helpful to connect to the garden as sacred space. Again, drawing from tai chi, you feel your feet connect to earth, perhaps imagining roots growing down into the soil.
While this practice can turn your existing garden space into a sanctuary, you can also purposely set out to create a sanctuary garden. What do you need? Not much.
At a most basic level, you could create a sanctuary spot on a deck or patio. First you need a comfortable place to sit. Next add greens, preferably those common in the area you live. Perhaps a small table that holds a cup of tea.
You want to feel enclosed so you have a sense of entering a space separate from your everyday world. A peaceful calming space that might include garden art or wood chimes.
But you could take the opposite approach. And just switch lenses to appreciate the garden you have right now as sacred space. It’s almost a left brain right, brain thing...just tune out your thinking brain and listen for the “music” emanating from your garden plants, from the air around them and the sky above.
Make it a ritual..something you do every day or every week, depending on your schedule. You will begin to look forward to spending time in the garden if you don’t already. Allow the calm it offers to wash over you. When you are at your most stressed, spend time in the garden ...not because of garden chores that need doing, but because it offers a place to recharge, renew and escape the drain that is 2020.
Photo and article by Donna Iverson
It looked like sweet corn but it wasn’t. In fact, it was sorghum. And the person in the adjacent community garden bed was growing it. Like every curious home gardener, I wanted to know more. Why grow sorghum and what were they going to do with it? Nothing like a garden mystery to brighten my day.
So I eventually tracked down the grower, Peter Stoeckle of Muskegon and asked him.
Turns out, he grows something new every summer, something that he has never grown before. And sorghum was his latest experiment. It was definitely healthy and growing well.. over six feet tall and lording it over the surrounding veggie plants.
In fact, Stoeckle is in the vanguard of a new trend..as sorghum is undergoing a revival of sorts. The regenerative farming people are growing sorghum for its ability to thrive in poor soil and drought conditions. In drought conditions it goes dormant until revived by a rainfall. It has been called a “camel” crop ..a tough plant for tough times, according NPR garden commentator Dan Charles.
Growing sorghum in your garden improves the soil ..it is nitrogen fixing. Next year’s veggie plants will benefit from the regenerated soil. It is also a weed suppressor and while sorghum does not produce cobs like corn, it can be made into sweet syrup or a gluten-free grain. Or if nothing else, the kernels can be used to make popcorn.
In the US, sorghum is a major source of feed for livestock like chicken and pigs and is also turned into ethanol. It is the fifth most commonly grown grain after wheat, rice, corn and barley, Sorghum, when turned into grain for human consumption, is gluten free and highly nutritious. It is high in protein, iron, magnesium, copper, calcium, zinc and potassium. It is not genetically modified, although DuPont is working on that. ..sigh.
Backyard gardeners and farmers mostly grow it to make a sweet syrup. To do this, you need at least four 100 foot rows of sorghum. In the fall, you will need to process it. An inexpensive hand-cranked press is available from www.grainmaker.com. Cooking down the syrup can be done over a backyard fire pit. Instructions are at motherearthnews.com/sorghum-production
And what is Stoeckle’s next experimental crop: buckwheat. If he makes sorghum syrup to go with buckwheat pancakes....I’m in.
By Terry Grabill
Photo by Rachel Bosma Kramer
One joy of being a member or administrator of birding groups on social media is the many images captured by experienced, talented photographers. I particularly like the discussions brought on by newer members working to identify birds that are new to them. It makes me happy when more experienced birders help a new guy through the key points of identifying this “new” species. Then…then comes a picture of a smallish black bird with a rich, brown head…the brown-headed cowbird. Seldom have I seen a discussion become heated like those regarding brown-headed cowbirds.
Cowbirds are migratory birds, related to red-winged blackbirds and grackles. They prefer open areas of fields and pastures to forests and marshes. Like many songbirds, the male is more striking in coloration than that drab gray of the female. Cowbirds are also nest parasites. Female cowbirds do not make nests or care for their young. Nesting for cowbirds involves spying on another bird, following it to its nest, waiting until the appropriate opportunity, and then laying an egg in its nest. If things go well for the cowbird parents, the “host” female will incubate the nest and raise the cowbird baby to fledging, when it will begin its life as a cowbird. A real wonder of nature is how it even knows it’s a cowbird and that it should seek out other cowbirds!
It’s this reproductive strategy that raises the ire of many. Humans have the unrealistic expectation that animals in nature exhibit similar values and emotions to ours. By human standards, cowbirds are deadbeat parents. They seem lazy and take advantage of others’ efforts, and we often feel they should take care of their own families and pull their weight in parenting. This tendency to assign human thoughts and values to non-human animals is called anthropomorphism, and we’re very good at it! If we saw our fellow humans behaving as such, we would be appalled and likely have good company in our opinion.
So, why in the world do brown-headed cowbirds do this? And, are they causing any harm to the hosts that they parasitize? To understand this behavior, we must go back in time. Cowbirds adapted to following the vast herds of bison over the North American prairies, feasting on the insects flushed by the roaming beasts. Unlike birds, bison, being mammals, carried their embryos along with them and their pause to give birth was short. Perhaps, in response to the need to move with the herds, cowbirds that were most successful deposited an egg in this nest…and an egg in that nest, leaving the host birds to tend to their babies. The behavior was carried with the species as its range expanded with the opening of the Great Lakes region to farming. So, why don’t they do the proper thing now that they don’t have to follow bison? Again, we assign human values and emotions to non-human animals…it just doesn’t work that way!
Native Great Lakes songbirds seem to do just fine with this parasitism. In spite of the stress on the individual mothers, most species suffer no ill-effect. An exception has been the Kirtland’s warbler, which nests in a VERY restricted area of north-central Michigan. The warblers have been critically endangered, and cowbirds were compounding the endangerment. In warbler habitat, cowbirds were trapped out to ensure the warbler nests were holding only warbler eggs. This practice has since ceased as the warbler’s populations increased.
Adding to their “distasteful” behavior is the act of terror sometimes brought down on hosts that reject the cowbird eggs. It’s sometimes called “mafia” behavior. The cowbird parents monitor the host nest and if their egg comes up missing, the cowbirds may destroy the host nest. It’s a bit reminiscent of an episode of “The Sopranos”!
Important to remember as we consider this marvel of natural adaptation is that, being migratory songbirds, they have complete protection of our federal government under the migratory bird treaty. Their eggs must not be disturbed under penalty of law. While we tend to want to “save” our favorite birds from these bullies, in order to really appreciate nature, we need to let nature take its course.
For BirdGoober, I’m Terry Grabill