Monday, November 28, 2016

Christmas Pickles, Spiders, Ladybugs...

Today, Sunday, November 27, marks the beginning of the liturgical calendar for Western Christians. It is also the 1st day of advent, a countdown of four weeks until Christmas.
Classic wooden Advent calendars contain small drawers to be opened on each day as Christmas nears

For many, it means its time to decorate, bake, shop and get ready for our biggest holiday of the year. For children, it is a test of patience and a time to reflect on how naughty or nice they've been this year and what gifts Santa may leave for them under the tree.

Our International Christmas Shop displays items from around the world, celebrating many facets of the winter season. Here are a few, many with a nature and gardening bent, that I find fascinating.

Spiders are a gardeners best friend as they spin webs to attract garden predators that may be after our prized plants. But, inside, they are not welcome. According to a German legend, a spider family moved into the Christmas tree, even as it was banished from the corners of a cozy home on Christmas Eve. Here they scurried about, gazing at the beauty of the ornaments, leaving a trail of gray webs as they climbed the tree. The Christ child smiled but knew the family's mother would be unhappy with a tree covered in spider webs. It was then that He reached out His hand, touched the webs and turned them into shimmers of gold and silver tinsel. So, as you add tinsel to the tree, it is customary to include a spider among the decorations.

Ladybugs, according to folklore, are also a good luck charm. Just as they do today, aphids fed on flowers and crops of all kinds and were a constant threat to farmers' harvests. When the farmers prayed to the Virgin Mary, swarms of red beetles appeared, eating the aphids and saving the crops from destruction. Farmers named the beetles Ladybugs, in honor of "Our Lady".

A pickle, placed in the tree among many ornaments, will provide luck or an extra gift to the person who finds it. Long thought to be a German tradition, the pickle ornament is probably, in reality, an American one. Woolworths began to import German glass ornaments in the 1880's, about when the story took hold. Still,it has become a tradition for many American families to hide (and find) a glass pickle in the tree.

The pickle is in the top left corner in this picture

Any of us who have seen the movie Mary Poppins remembers chimneysweep Bert singing, "Chim, chimney, chim, chimney, chim, chim, cher-oo, good luck will rub off when I shake hands with you." In Germany, an ornament may be given as a New Year's gift as a wish for a happy New Year.

Chimneysweep with his own Ladybug good luck charm
The red mushroom spotted with white is called a Fly Agaric Mushroom (Amantha muscaria). It has been traced to the Lapplands and recorded in mythology from around the world. The mushroom's hallucinogenic properties may have led to sightings of a guy dressed in red and white flying in a sleigh propelled by reindeer...or not. Whatever; the mushrooms are a good luck symbol used in German, and Nordic traditions.

Elf on the Shelf is a newer tradition. Since 2004, the Elf has helped Santa keep an eye on children to see who is being naughty or nice. The Elf's family continues to grow as do his antics and YouTube following.

Nutcrackers have been a part of our own history at Valley View Farms for many years, as we have imported handcrafted pieces from Germany since very early in our International Christmas Shop. Creator Herr Christian Steinbach visited annually to sign his company's unique designs. Prized nutcrackers came from the Erzebirge region of Germany (as they still do today) and have been tooled by craftsmen since the late 1600's. They are used to ward off evil, keeping homes safe.

Nutcrackers became much more popular as The Nutcracker Ballet has become a holiday event around the world.

One of my favorite Christmas traditions is giving a poinsettia to a friend. The red poinsettia was my Mom's favorite flower, and so, it has become mine. Ecke, the breeder and family responsible for marketing the poinsettia as one of the world's most popular potted plants, tells The Legend of the Poinsettia on their website. Here is a copy of that story:

A charming story is told of Pepita, a poor Mexican girl who had no gift to present the Christ Child at Christmas Eve Services. As Pepita walked slowly to the chapel with her cousin Pedro, her heart was filled with sadness rather than joy. “I am sure, Pepita, that even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable in His eyes,” said Pedro consolingly. Not knowing what else to do, Pepita knelt by the roadside and gathered a handful of common weeds, fashioning them into a small bouquet. Looking at the scraggly bunch of weeds, she felt more saddened and embarrassed than ever by the humbleness of her offering. She fought back a tear as she entered the small village chapel. As she approached the alter, she remembered Pedro’s kind words: “Even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable in His eyes.” She felt her spirit lift as she knelt to lay the bouquet at the foot of the nativity scene. Suddenly, the bouquet of weeds burst into blooms of brilliant red, and all who saw them were certain that they had witnessed a Christmas miracle right before their eyes. From that day on, the bright red flowers were known as the Flores de Noche Buena, or Flowers of the Holy Night, for they bloomed each year during the Christmas season. Today, the common name for this plant is the poinsettia!
These beautiful poinsettias have been grown in our own farm greenhouses

May your holidays be filled with good luck, love and a miracle or two. Merry Christmas!

Friday, November 11, 2016

Putting the Garden to Bed

Late blooming roses flowering in early November

Our first frost arrived Wednesday morning. Roses handled it just fine. It was not enough to kill my lantana and begonias, but the annuals will soon succumb to winter cold. Now is the time to prep our garden for winter. Doing so now gives gardeners a chance to get ahead of all the spring chores.
Here are a few tips:
Weed beds one last time to get a headstart on winter weeds. Veteran garden blogger Kathy Purdy, of Cold Climate Gardening, shares some great tips on triage weeding. She gives a wonderful how-to on removing weeds in an order that can work for even the most procrastinating of gardeners.
Get as many weeds as possible out before seeds drop 

Mulch as the soil temperatures cool. Add just an inch or two of shredded bark, compost or your favorite mulch, leaving a little space around trees and stems.
Large mulched areas keep weeds out, warm soil temperatures and are a good preparation for planting

Prune after the leaves fall off the trees. In Pruning Tips from the Chicago Botanical Gardens , professional gardeners suggest pruning deciduous trees once they are dormant. Their Plant Health Care department recommends pruning evergreens in the growing season to avoid tip burn during harsh, cold temperatures.
Wait for spring to prune hemlocks, though dead wood can be cut out anytime

Mow trees' leaves right into the lawn as they will add nutrients to the soil. If leaf fall is too heavy, shred leaves and add them to the compost bin or use as a mulch in gardening beds.
A leaf rake and lawn mower can work together in the garden

Save annual seed from flowers to plant next year. Pull out dead annuals and add to the compost pile if they are disease free.

Plant bulbs like daffodils, tulips, hyacinth and scores of other spring blooming varieties. Dig, Drop, Done is a fun and informative website to help with bulb questions, design and all-around care. I have planted bulbs as late as January with good results.
Deter deer and other wildlife by using deer repellent sprays and granules like those available from Messina Wildlife. Deer Stopper tape is also very effective to keep deer away from prized trees, shrubs and perennials.
Long a personal favorite product for deer-heavy areas
Photograph or journal this year's triumphs and challenges to help plan next year's garden.
Test the soil before it freezes. Bring it in to our garden shop for a free pH analysis.

John checking soil pH
Check houseplants for any hitchhikers that may have come back in with the plants that summered outside. Give them an occasional shower with tepid water to keep leaves clean. Spray with insecticidal soap or horticultural oil if insects appear.
Bad bugs, bad shot

Enjoy the autumn and winter seasons. It won't be long until seed and gardening catalogs arrive in the mailbox.