A Sea Change

ocean wavesTime for a change!

I’m shortly going to be blending this blog with my website (www.anitasanchez.com) so when you visit Unmowed.com the format will look a little different. Also most of the older blog posts won’t be available right away, but they’ll be back eventually. The new format should make the blog easier to load, especially if you don’t have the highest of high-speed internet.

I hope you’ll stick around! Summer is just around the corner, and the whole green world is just waiting for us to explore it.

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Dandelion: Easy to Grow

All winter and spring I try and try to get plants to grow. I pamper cranky houseplants, sprinkle seeds into pots and encourage them to grow into seedlings. I cheer for each crocus that pokes up through the snow, celebrate each brave hint of green, the first blade of grass, the first violet…

Then BAM. The end of May hits like a freight train, and now we have to spend the rest of the summer beating the plants back. Everyone’s out on their riding mowers, trying to get the lawn under control. With all this rain, the grass is growing so fast you can almost see it. The weeds are already eating the garden, the houseplants are stretching their legs (so to speak) and flourishing on the porch.

Each year I buy petunias and geraniums and begonias to decorate the front porch. They’re not hard to grow, don’t take much of my time. And every year I also plant another type of plant–even easier to grow. Some might say not as pretty as a petunia, but I find it has a beauty all its own.

Seek No Further Farm 007

It’s partly because dandelions are a food plant, of course. I grab a handful of leaves every now and then to add to a salad. But they’re bitter now, really too bitter to eat raw–after the plant flowers it undergoes a chemical change and the sap inside the leaves becomes mouth-puckering–most types of lettuce, which is closely related to dandelions, do the same thing when they “bolt.” Summer dandelion leaves are better cooked–a handful of greens chopped up in a soup is a nice addition.

I could get them from my lawn, of course–we’ve had really quite a lot of success growing dandelions on the front lawn. But I just like the one in the flowerpot. The most interesting part is watching the stems elongate–they start out as flowers with a stem about six inches long, and then as soon as they’re pollinated the flowers close up like an umbrella. And then the stem begins to stretch, up and up. Almost overnight, it turns into a giraffe-neck more than a foot long. This is an adaptation so they can get the seed ball up higher into the wind, since dandelions of course disperse their seeds by wind.

You can’t beat dandelions as a porch plant–better tasting, and much more entertaining to watch than a petunia!




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Rain, Rain!

diane hale smith beautiful rainThanks to Diane Hale Smith for this beautiful photographic collage.

Long ago, I used to work with a gentleman some of you may remember–a very gentle man, named Ray Falconer. He was a meteorologist, the weather guru on public radio, and he used to give the most amazingly detailed and enthusiastic weather reports I’ve ever heard. Rain, sun, cloudy, mild, hurricane, fog, hail, whatever–the guy just loved weather. If you bumped into him and casually remarked “Nice day,” you had to be prepared to listen to a twenty-minute dissertation on high pressure and warm fronts.

Anyway, he once told me that in the course of his research he had looked over the statistics for the past several decades, and he claimed that what we had long suspected was actually true: it does rain more on weekends.

He was talking about Albany, NY, but I think it’s probably a global phenomenon–the weather gods just know when there’s a parade scheduled, somehow. But after a long haul of (gorgeous, sunny, warm) extremely dry weather, you can see the plants drinking the rain in with such eagerness. Everything is growing visibly, almost audibly. So I guess we’ll have to put up an umbrella over the barbecue grill this weekend, and enjoy the beauty of the rain.



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Tulips: Marching Into Summer

wells horton red tulips

Tulips. The most domesticated of plants—human-engineered, unable to live in the wild, destined to look all alike and grow submissively where they’re planted in parks or gardens.

Yet look at these tulips—even when they’re all lined up in a row, each is a distinct individual.  Their youth is gone, old age is nigh, yet they’re gamely marching on. They seem to know that spring is winding down, and they’re leading the way into summer.

Thanks to Wells Horton for this wonderful photo. Check out his work on Facebook, or on http://wells-horton.smugmug.com/

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Celandine: Sweet Young Thing

One of the best things about writing a blog is that it gives you a reason to look at everything with new eyes. I’ve always enjoyed plant-watching, but now I eye the green ranks like a Hollywood casting director: Have you got star quality? Are you photogenic and charismatic enough to be the focus of my next blog post?

Sometimes I happen to return, purely by chance, to a place I’ve photographed before, and recognize a plant I’d photographed in another season. It’s like seeing a favorite actor in the sequel to a hit movie. It’s a nice feeling, familiar, which I guess is why we have so many movie sequels, Star Wars XIX and so forth. (They just came out with The Hangover 3, I’m not kidding.)

Anyway, several months ago I wrote an exciting blog post about a January snowstorm, with the leading lady being a young celandine plant huddling in a corner to avoid the storm. woodpecker 008

The story had a happy ending, and the young celandine spent the whole cold winter lurking in the driveway. woodpecker 007Just showing a few leaves, she managed to tough it out and make it through till spring.

Celandines are in the poppy family–not a native wildflower, but not terribly invasive. They’re quite common, because they have a bright yellow sap that’s quite toxic and–I would guess–tastes horrible, so deer and other browsers don’t tend to eat it.

Anyway, when spring rolled around, the celandine leaped up and stretched out. Here’s a photo of the same plant taken in late April. She’s matured, gotten long and leggy, and the buds are ready to open.


And now, in mid-May–the celandine is in full bloom.celandine flower 015

She’s ready for her close-up!celandine flower 022

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Bee Balm: A Good Bet

I admit it. It’s an addiction. The first step is admitting it, right?

Much as I love nature and wild things, I just can’t pass up a greenhouse. IMG_4600

There’s something about all those plants, spread out in a wild crazy quilt of color. The sheer gorgeousness of the exotic blooms. IMG_4610

This is Gade Farm on Route 20 in Guilderland. I park the car and walk inside, vowing not to buy one more plant.IMG_4597

Usually, in twenty minutes I’m staggering back to my car loaded down with petunias or what-have-you.

But this year I drifted away from the magenta and purple and scarlet of the annuals, and checked out the quieter area on the side—all green, nothing blooming yet.  The plants look modest, but the price tags aren’t. These little green sprigs cost three or four times the amount of a pack of petunias.IMG_4595

It’s bee balm, a type of mint (no minty smell, though). A perennial, coming up year after year. That’s why it costs so much, of course. It’s a bet on the future—a future filled with uncertainty, to be sure, a future of possible frost, caterpillars, or accidental beheadings with the lawnmower. But if my $7.99 gamble pays off, each year the plant will get bigger. It will (again, I’m betting) overwinter safely underground and spring forth each spring better than ever. The petunias will kick the bucket at the first frost, but the bee balm will persist.

Why bee balm, if I want a perennial? Why not peonies or roses? Well, I’m trying to garden with my neighbors in mind. Bee balm is the plant if you want to attract hummingbirds. It’s a native American plant, and hummingbirds are nuts for its long trumpet-shaped red blossoms. Good for butterflies, too. It’s a small attempt at replacing some of the native species long since ousted by the rosebushes and tulips.

Bee balm is going to help me feed hummingbirds for many summers to come. I bet.IMG_4619

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Poison Ivy: The Furry Plant

Now that’s a really hairy vine. poison_ivy_vine georgeThere’s an old saying: “Hairy vine, a danger sign.”

The fuzzy pelt on this vine is the sure indicator of poison ivy. And yes you can get a rash from the vine–from almost all parts of the plant, in fact—root, fruit, stem, and leaf.

Although though the plant looks furry enough to be a mammal, of course it isn’t really hair; all that fuzzy stuff on the vine is made up of a dense mat of aerial rootlets. They absorb oxygen and help the plant clamber up the tree, making its way to new heights to absorb more sunshine. Another reason why poison ivy is a highly successful plant.

Thanks to George Steele for this amazing picture, taken at the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge!

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Garlic Mustard: The Time is Ripe

Time to get rid of it. Garlic mustard. Sounds tasty, doesn’t it? IMG_4531It’s a pretty little wildflower with lovely white blossoms. The leaves have an attractively scalloped edge, and a savory garlic taste, a fantastic addition to salads, quiche, and stir-fry. A lovely and useful plant.

I’ve spent all day killing it.

Eradicating it. Ripping it out by the roots. Doing everything short of spraying a dose of Round-Up on it.IMG_4538

Why? I have an enormous tolerance for non-native “weeds,” as my undying love for dandelions shows. Why enjoy the dandelions, the clover, the daisies, and murder the poor little garlic mustard?

Two words. Shade tolerant.

Garlic mustard is able to grow in shade. And shade is the barrier most non-native plants won’t cross. Most non-native plants don’t pose a threat to wilderness areas. Tulips, petunias, peonies—they’re none of them native American plants, but they stay where they’re put. Even the hardy non-native “weeds” like dandelions, clovers, daisies, daylilies, Queen Anne’s lace—they all tend to stick to the open–they linger in the parking lot like timid urbanites, and don’t venture onto the back-country trails.  Oh, some hardy individuals might venture a few yards into the forest, or pop up where a storm has toppled an old tree, opening a skylight in the canopy of leaves. But they need sun and can’t survive shade.IMG_4539

Not so for garlic mustard. Doesn’t mind shade a bit. And that makes it a major threat to woodland wildflowers. It’s incredibly fast-growing and aggressive plant, the tender green leaves marching like storm troopers across disturbed soil, choking out native plants—bloodroots, pink lady’s-slippers, anemones, hepatica, trillium, spring beauties, ferns, club moss…

And garlic mustard is ripening now, getting ready to go to seed. Garlic mustard is a biennial—first year: just leaves. Second year: leaves and a flower head. And those pretty little white flowers can produce hundreds and hundreds of seeds.

So now’s the time. Grab them before they seed. Pull’em up, yank’em out.

It’s easy to confuse them with violets, which look similar before they bloom. Garlic mustard smells distinctly like garlicgarlicgarlic. You can’t miss it. (Violets on the left in photo below, garlic mustard on the right.IMG_4533

And—here’s the really amazing part. Even after the plant is completely uprooted and thrown on the compost pile, the flowers can continue producing seed. Almost frightening, isn’t it? Uprooted, limp and dead-looking, yet they go on developing–living after death, like little green zombies. It took me a few years to figure out why the garlic mustard grew so prolifically around the compost pile…

So, sadly, you can’t recycle piles of uprooted garlic mustard, or do anything “green” with them. Into the trash, off to the landfill.IMG_4530

I hate this. I just hate this. I hate having to uproot anything in this season when we should nurture and rejoice in all plants. But something has to be weeded out of my yard; and it’ll be the garlic mustard.

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All Roads Lead to Dandelions

No matter where you go these days, it seems there’s a dandelion at your feet–or under your feet.

dandelion new york city 004

The beginning of May is when dandelions run riot. This is a cobbled pathway in Central Park, New York City. The dandelions don’t content themselves with growing on the lawn, they invade the sidewalk, too.

dandelion new york city 002The flower and leaves manage to survive in the spaces between the stones. Just a few small crumpled leaves. How on earth can they do it?

The secret of their success is in the root.

Dandelions are perennials, coming up year after year, for five years or even more. So the root has time to get big. Even if the leaves can’t do a lot of photosynthesizing because they’re getting walked on all the time, the root can supply energy so the plant can flower and produce seed.

Half of the biomass, or living material, of most terrestrial plants is found below the ground. Everywhere we walk–grass, sidewalk or paved roadway–beneath our feet there’s a network of living roots, like eels swimming beneath the quiet surface of a lake. The vast tangle of roots compete fiercely, vying with each other in a slow-motion battle for space, water, and food.

In this struggle for survival, there are two basic root “game plans.” Some plants go long, sending the roots to grow deep, reaching for the sure thing: the constant water supply far below. Or there’s the opposite strategy, taken by other species: go shallow. The roots can spread out like the spokes of a wheel, growing quickly to form a spiderweb of rootlets all around the stem. This wide net can grab up the water from the merest drizzle as soon as it hits the ground, before it can evaporate.

So, which strategy does the dandelion use? The slow, patient growth of the deep taproot towards the water table, or the quick, opportunistic use of every passing shower? Both.

The dandelion quickly develops a wide network of shallow roots, followed by a deep taproot that is usually about a foot and a half long, but is capable of penetrating to a depth of ten feet or more. So when you look at a little wizened dandelion poking through the gravel or the blacktop, remember.

There’s a lot we’re not seeing.dandelion new york city 008

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Violet: A Spark of the Divine

dandelion new york city 040The cathedral of St. John the Divine. This is the chapter house, a smaller building next to the immense cathedral, one of the largest in the world. It’s a magnificent building, like a medieval fortress. But nature manages to sneak in somehow, finding a crack in the most impressive monuments. One little spark of green in the corner–a spring violet.dandelion new york city 036

Violet is a genus, not a species–it’s like saying, “Oh, look, there’s a duck.” But is it a mallard, a wood duck, a black duck? There’s a zillion kinds of ducks. There are hundreds of species of violets, scattered over the globe. Some are fragrant, some have no odor at all.

All violet leaves are edible–very rich in vitamins A and C. They’re a nice spring green to throw into a salad. They’re a garden flower and a wildflower, growing with equal ease on both sides of the fence. They hide in the lawn and flourish in the florist shop. And as you’d guess from the way this little guy can grow out of a crack under these big stone blocks, they’re way more hardy than they look.dandelion new york city 037

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