Welcome to Fossil Ridge

Join us on our adventures out in the country!


545109_3457702561681_1334275842_n My name is Melissa and I live out in the country in northeast Kansas.  I have five acres, some chickens, some gardens, lots of rocks, two dogs, and a husband.

We decided to leave the college town we lived in and buy a house back when we got married in 2009.  After touring house after house in our price range, we found the one we eventually bought on the cover of a brochure at our realtor’s office.

The house sits on a long, narrow lot that is mostly full of trees.  Part of it is a five acre pond we share with our neighbors to the north.  We’re on top of a ridge created many, many years ago when Kansas was under an inland sea.  Our ridge was a coral reef, and there are so many fossils just sitting on top of the topsoil it’s amazing.  If you see my husband out squatting in the lawn, he’s looking for his favorites, crinoids, and not… well, you know.

Growing up in various large towns and cities my whole life, I was rather ignorant about wild plants and animals.  Now that I live here, I am itching to learn all I can.  I want to identify the edible plants that grow around my home and to know which ones to avoid.  I know mushrooms like the tasty and much desired morel must grow in there somewhere, but don’t really know where to look.  I also want to grow my own food and raise my own animals.  We’ve fought the rocks and clay to lay out vegetable gardens and beat back the grasses to add wildflowers.

We struggle and we triumph.  We invite you to follow our adventures.

Things Have Changed

It has been a while, hasn’t it?  A lot of things have happened in the last few months – some good and some bad.  We’re going to focus mostly on the good stuff, but I do have a bit of sad news to share first.

We’ll miss you, Dr. Orpheus

My dear, sweet rooster, Dr. Orpheus, was killed in the line of duty recently.  Something was attacking my hens and he ran to the rescue and met his end in the jaws of a coyote.  He performed his primary task, protecting the hens, and we will miss him very much.  He was a beautiful bird, sweet and gentle with the ladies.  He would follow them into the coop when they went in to lay eggs and coo at them – a loving labor coach.  He had several devoted ladies among the flock and I know that they miss him, Miss Digby especially.  He was her lobster.

You do not need a rooster in order to successfully keep chickens, but they do have an important function.  It is not acting as an alarm clock as crowing is a territorial call.  Hens do not need exposure to a rooster in order to lay eggs.  As Dr. Orpheus fatally demonstrated, roosters are there to defend the flock.  They are there to put themselves between the hens and danger.  Luckily, because you really only need one or two roosters per ten to twenty hens, roosters are plentiful and usually free if you go through a site like Craigslist.  So that’s what I did:  I cruised listings until I found a likely candidate.  He was part of a group of five roosters, but he was a loner and had never been housed with hens.  I counted on him being at the bottom of the pecking order.  They tend to be nicer to the hens and usually won’t dream of flogging their keeper.

Looking a little rough there, Tom.

After much deliberation, and to honor one of our favorite musicians that recently passed away, we named him Tom.  He’s molting right now, which is why he looks rather scruffy, but he shows the potential of being a lovely bird.  The girls aren’t too sure of him yet but they have started sleeping near him on the roosts.  He’s two years old and looks to have suffered some frostbite to his comb, but he is healthy.  We’ll see how he works out.  He failed a major test yesterday, though.

I decided to go down and sit near the run in the late afternoon to socialize with him and the ladies.  He was hanging out in the middle of the yard by himself and I was in the middle of a group consisting of Duck Duck, Goose, and Miss Digby.  They were holding very still, which should have tipped me off, but then Duck Duck growled very, very softly.  I looked at her (I know that sound is a warning) then looked off to my right under the trees and there was a large and rather healthy-looking coyote standing very still, looking right at me.  I pointed at her, saying, “I see you!,” and ran over to where she was standing.  She ran down into the trees, but stopped.  I moved around, trying to see her and encourage her to move further away so I could run and get the treat bowl and my husband.  I managed to get everyone safely back in their runs while my husband walked through to trees to make sure the coyote stayed away while I was securing the birds.  To be fair, the rooster wasn’t in a good position to see the coyote, but he also tends to wander off and leave them by themselves.  So, like I said, we’ll see how it goes.

In other news, the vegetable garden is doing… not great.  I have tomatoes on the vine, but have only harvested three ripe ones so far.  The cherry tomato is growing well and I have managed to harvest quite a few of the tasty little nuggets, but not as many as in years previous.  I have had luck with carrots and beets this year, but the lettuce and radishes never really grew, they just bolted as soon as they were big enough to fill out.  The green beans I planted went gangbusters and soon took over the cucumber trellis (I got no cucumbers at all), then became infested with Japanese beetles.  I got some good harvests from them, and have some stored to eat over the winter.  The peppers grew some tiny little fruits, but nothing worth mentioning.

Slow as hell tomatoes

Out in the country where I live, terrible people often dump “unwanted” animals.  It is one of the cruelest things we humans do to animals, and if I could only get my hands on these people…  Anyway, some excellent news to end things here: We have been adopted by a gorgeous little kitten that someone obviously dumped.  She isn’t feral – she’s a real sweetheart and loves to cuddle.  She was well-fed, her fur soft and not matted, but she had a terrible injury to her right ear.  We think she took refuge on our porch because it is fenced in and relatively safe from larger animals.  We just opened the door one day and there she was.  I’ve named her Sorcha, and anyone familiar with Outlander will recognize the name.  Essentially it is Gaelic for “light” or “brightness”.  She has the most gorgeous golden eyes, so I named her after Claire in the book series.

Sorcha with the golden eyes.

She’s a happy girl and relatively healthy aside from ear mites and an ear infection.  She loves to play with a twine and chicken feather toy I made, and the catnip mouse my mom got for her (thanks Grandma!).  I’m teaching her to look where I point with treats, and she gets wet food when she lets me treat her ears.  She helps me garden, too.  Well, mostly she ambushes me, swatting at my hands while I’m weeding and she sleeps in my parsley.  Sorcha is a sweet girl, so thank you to whatever low-life dumped her.  You don’t deserve her.

Sleeping in the parsley.
“Helping” in the garden.




Early Summer in the Gardens

I got off to a bit of a slow start this year with the vegetables.  Well, I didn’t, but I wasn’t paying close enough attention and I lost my tomato seedlings.  I started tomato seeds in February, but they germinated while I wasn’t looking and they all died, so I started new ones in April.  The most successful ones are about six inches tall, the others are still no bigger than seedlings.  I had to buy a few plants to ensure a harvest, including our very favorite cherry tomato, SunSugar.

Tomatoes are on the poles, carrots on the sides, onions in the front, and flowers in the rear to attract pollinators.

My garlic, though, has been a resounding success.  This year was my biggest garlic harvest ever.  I grow two varieties:  Siberian, a hardneck variety, and Inchelium Red, a softneck.  Softneck varieties, due to the tightly wrapped cloves, tends to keep better, so we eat up the hardneck first.  We’ll probably have garlic on hand until at least February or March next year, maybe longer.  The only thing I have to do now, while they’re curing, is to choose which heads I will use for this fall’s planting.  The bed the garlic was in has been tilled and now it is hosting some sweet peppers and the SunSugar cherry tomatoes I mentioned above.

Inchelium Red Harvest

I went a little crazy with the beans this year.  I adore green beans so I planted a whole mess of them.  They have since overwhelmed my pole structure and are taking over the one I built for the cucumbers and will soon encroach on the peas.  They stole all the water from the potatoes I planted nearby and caused all the radishes to bolt.  Oh well, we’re going to have so many green beans we’ll be eating them into the winter.  I hope.

Monster green beans!

My beds with beets and lettuce are coming along.  The beets are about golf ball sized, and I need to sow some more.   I’m going to wait a bit to sow more lettuce and radishes because they tend to do better for me in cooler weather and it being the beginning of July, I have at least two to three good, hot months to get through.  Our growing season seems to be extending later and later into the end of the year, and sometimes our Spring is actually Spring and sometimes it just goes straight into Summer.  With the climate changing as quickly as it is, gardening is becoming a bit of a guessing game.

Lettuce, beets, and onions.

If you remember, last year these beds were all overgrown with marigold volunteers.  I have left some in this year’s garden because they are quite beneficial.  They repel some nasty bugs and help the wildlife that lives in the soil.  They also attract beneficial insects and pollinators.  I also planted some zinnias because they are gorgeous and because any flowers in the garden are going to help the overall health and productivity of the plants.  The hummingbirds also seem to enjoy them.

Zinnias helping out.

Next to the zinnias is a bed full of nasturtiums, sunflowers, and more cucumbers.  I was hoping the cucumbers would grow up the sunflowers, and it looks like that might just work out for me.  The nasturtiums aren’t growing as quickly as I hoped they would, but fingers crossed they take off soon.  They are supposed to be the vining kind, so we’ll just have to see what happens.  In my head, they climb up the sunflowers too, but I’ll be happy if they just help out as a ground cover.

The potato harvest wasn’t as spectacular as I had hoped for, but considering the bed they were in was unimproved aside from hilling them up with compost, they didn’t do too poorly.

Red, white, and blue potatoes, peas, beans, an onion, and some fresh dill.

Soon to be planted out with the new peppers and cherry tomato is a nice looking crop of thyme, oregano, basil, and parsley that I’ve started in my window boxes.

Thyme and oregano.
Parsley and basil.

I can honestly say that this is the best I’ve ever managed in the world of gardening.  I finally have a garden that works for us.  It’s nice looking and producing enough for us eat for now.  I am trying to do everything organically and so far, this year seems to be going well.  The chickens are helping to produce compost for us, and they get all the kitchen waste I produce from my harvests.  Sure, I need to work on planning a bit better (I’m looking at you, leaning tower of beans), and climate change is going to be a bigger and bigger challenge in the years to come, but if I can feed my local bees and other insects while producing my own food, maybe I can do my small part to help.  At least nobody is going to have to drive green beans around for my consumption!

Mother Nature’s Wrath

A few weeks ago a storm blew part of a tree down in the yard.  No big deal, you would think, but it landed on my chicken’s run.  18839197_10209908475528901_444556221561405161_n.jpg

We were able to trim all the smaller bits off, but the main part is still attached to the trunk.  The run was usable in the meantime, just still very dangerous.  I would have to duck walk across the length of it to open and close the pop door.  The birds had to live under it.  It was nerve wracking and causing a lot of anxiety all around.18836019_10209908474888885_742831737197446740_n.jpg

As you can see, it was not very safe at all.  We had constant raccoon incursions because there was no good way to secure the run at night.  We finally did manage to kill one and figure out where she was getting in, but there was no way around it: We had to rebuild.

My husband Travis is a carpenter, and a very good one at that.  Here is his beautiful and, most importantly, SECURE run:


We took down an old barn a few years ago so have piles of this corrugated metal laying all over the place.  We lined the bottoms of the walls to discourage critters from digging their way in.  It is staked down to allow us to mow around it.


It has a fully covered roof now, too, to help keep rain and snow out.  The litter gets soaked otherwise and becomes a vector for disease.  If anything, we want to prevent trench foot.


The metal is double-height in the back to help keep predators out.  It wraps around the coop, as secure as we could make it.  We ran our chicken wire around the run, then secured the metal down over it to make it more difficult for predators to rip apart.  It should be hardware cloth all around it, because chicken wire is really only good at keeping chickens out of things, but this works for us for now.  In the spaces between the studs, the chicken wire is secured to the metal with strips of wood, and where the wire overlaps, we have “sewn” it together with metal wire.

Nothing is getting in here.

The inside of the back has a small, hardware cloth vent to allow for the shape of the coop and for air circulation.  The door is an old screen door that we reinforced with hardware cloth and more metal.  Their food is also protected from becoming a wet lump.


My birds are happy and safe, and I don’t have to crouch to take care of them.  We’re a happy bunch, thanks to my husband!


Lamb Chops with Asparagus on the Grill

Delicious spring time flavors!

As I have said before, I don’t really follow recipes for anything except baking.  I will read through a recipe for ideas and then go off in my own direction.  So, I apologize that I won’t be able to provide exact measurements or cooking times for these items, but I know most of you will have your go-to marinades and grilling preferences and be ready to go.

Marinate, you delicious spears, you.

Recently I made lamb chops and asparagus on the grill because, well, it is spring and the asparagus is growing and it is lambing time.  Whenever I’m grilling, because I love them so much, I always cook an onion too.  Before cooking, I marinate the asparagus in olive oil, salt, freshly cracked black pepper, some garlic powder, and a splash of lemon juice in a storage bag.  They don’t need long, a few hours at most.  Asparagus is easy like that.  In another bag I loaded my chops along with some fresh chives and thyme, chopped garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper, and a bit of dried parsley (because the garden is coming along a little too slowly and it hadn’t grown yet).  I tend to let meat marinate for a long time, hoping for the flavors to penetrate it deeply for maximum flavor.  I probably let these hang out in the refrigerator overnight.

The next day, I fired up the grill using natural chunk charcoal.  We use it because the ashes are an excellent addition to the soil in the garden and I am determined not to add any chemicals I don’t need to the beds.  Plus, I just like the idea that I am cooking over something a bit more natural than those pressed ones that have who knows what in them.  Once it was nice and hot, I slapped the chops on the grill.  I also add my onion, top it with a pat of butter and a sprinkle of salt.










I’m not even going to guess how long to cook these babies on each side, but I will tell you that after searing a bit, I turned them a bit to get a nice-looking grill pattern.  Looks like I went about 90 degrees here, but usually just a quarter turn is all I do for things like steaks.  Since they are so thick, when they are done cooking on each side, I flip them up on their bones to make sure the meat around them is nice and hot, too.  I rely on a digital thermometer to tell me when my meat is done, and for medium-rare to medium, you want to shoot for between 145 and 160 degrees Fahrenheit for lamb.  If you want them well done, aim for 170, but why?  Dry out your meat if you want to, I suppose.  It’s your house.

Stand tall, little chops.

After removing the chops, I cover them with foil and bring them inside to rest while I cook the asparagus.  Another reason asparagus is awesome, aside from the delicious flavor, is that it cooks very quickly.  The Romans, when referring to doing something quickly, said it is “faster than cooking asparagus”.  Depending on how well done you want it, it really only takes a few minutes.  I like mine a bit crunchy, so it comes off the coals after I roll it around a few times.


When the asparagus comes off the grill, I wrap it in foil just to keep it warm.  Remember, it will keep cooking in the foil, so keep that in mind if you are delaying serving dinner right away.  The onion… well.  As with the asparagus, I like it to have some tooth to it so I cook it until it has softened a bit on the outside, but the inside is still a bit crunchy.  This makes for a mix of mellow, sweet onion flavor with a little bite, and a mix of textures, too.

I probably spent 24 hours preparing this meal (mostly sleeping and messing around in the yard with the dogs), but really only about 30-45 minutes cooking it, not counting lighting the coals.  Spring is the best time to eat asparagus because it is in season and readily available at your nearest grocery store.  I do have it in my garden, but the crowns are young yet and don’t produce as much as I’ve cooked here.  Out of season asparagus just doesn’t taste the same to me, and tends to be skinny little spears that don’t stand up well to cooking.

Have fun when you cook, take risks.  Make it a family activity, too.  Talk to one another.  Food brings us all closer together.



What is Growing Around the Homestead?

It is officially spring and things are… springing.  Herbaceous perennials are bursting through the soil to see the sun and the gardens are changing quickly.  I find myself wandering around, wondering at the little nubs of plants pushing themselves up after their winter slumber.  I should be weeding, but I am easily distracted by the beauty all around me.


The tulips and anemones are blooming now.  Most of the tulips I’ve bought lately have come from a coworker’s daughter selling them as a fundraiser, which beats selling cookie dough and wrapping paper if you ask me.  The only thing is that the colors are a mystery when I receive the bulbs.  I have no way of knowing what they’re going to look like, but I have been pleasantly surprised.









A lot of the plants in my garden are mail ordered, and the company I use usually has a free offer.  I was reluctant to try a Fritillaria imperialis, or Crown Imperial, because I have read from other growers that they can have a rather musky or skunky odor.  Maybe I haven’t brushed up against it enough or have been downwind at the appropriate moment, but I haven’t noticed an odor.  It is a gorgeous plant, though.  Since I have never grown this plant, or anything in it’s immediate family, I read as much as I could about its care.  It is very susceptible to rot if planted with the part of the bulb that produces the stem faces straight up.  I planted the thing on its side and asked it to please grow, but buried it last fall without any real hope that it would survive or grow, but here she is:


I don’t usually make New Years resolutions aside from just to be happy, but this year I promised myself I was going to make more of an effort in the vegetable garden.  My husband helped me clear some of the building materials out from where they were being stored at each end of the garden thereby creating two new, but narrow, beds.  I plan on putting asparagus crowns in the north bed soon, but for now I am going to grow sunflowers and nasturtiums there.  The south bed is for potatoes this year.

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Basically what we did is till the ground to rid it of grass and weeds, then dumped some composted manure on the bed.  The bed itself is probably about eight feet long and three feet deep.  We purchased a variety of seed potatoes and I placed each on directly onto the prepared surface, then I dumped a forty pound bag of composted manure on each seed potato.  I hollowed out the tops so the plants wouldn’t have too far to go and also so water could collect in the top and sink down gently.  Once leaves and stems are poking up through the holes, I will mound the dirt back over them to protect the potatoes growing beneath.  Have you seen green potatoes in the grocery store, or maybe in your own stored spuds?  Do not eat them.  The green is chlorophyll, which isn’t dangerous, but when they start to produce that, they produce the poison solanine.  After I mound up the rest of the dirt, I will cover the whole bit with straw as mulch and additional anti-sun protection.  Between the potatoes and the other beds, I will plant zinnias to help attract pollinators to the garden.

This year we will try to grow strawberries again.  We attempted to do so when we first moved in, but a number of factors led to our failure, mostly lack of air circulation and planting them too closely together.  I took an idea I saw online and am growing them in my raised bed that I recently renovated.  It used to have a simple wooden frame, but that fell apart from years of freezing, heaving, being hit by the mower, etc.  The new bed is lined by cinder blocks and pavers.  I planted ten Ozark Beauty plants in the holes in the cinder blocks.  We’ll see how that works.










The bed also contains some garlic that volunteered from last year, some peonies, some Coreopsis verticillata (aka threadleaf coreopsis), and Belladonna lilies.  I am also adding a rose.  Strawberries and roses can share diseases, so it’s best if they have separate soil.  The photo above shows the strawberries freshly planted.  As of “press time”, the leaves have opened and they are making themselves quite at home.

The garlic I planted last fall is looking good.  I usually plant my garlic just after the full moon in October or November.  This year I have to varieties in the ground: Inchelium Red and Siberian.  One is a soft neck variety (Inchelium) and the other is a hard neck.  Basically, the hard neck varieties will produce scapes in the spring, or flower stalks.  There has been much debate on whether removing the scapes helps produce larger heads of garlic or not, but if you do remove them, you can make many delicious things with them.  Grind them up to make pesto, chop them small and add them to stir fry or eggs, or just throw them in with your ingredients next time you make stock.  Hard neck varieties tend to grow better in colder climates, and soft necks in warmer.  I’m here in Kansas and so I just grow both.  Soft neck varieties tend to store longer, and Inchelium Red’s flavor becomes more intense with storage.

In order to save some money and use up any and all scraps that don’t go to the chickens, pieces of plants I prune, grass clippings, deadheads, etc, I have started a compost heap.  It started with all the weeds and marigolds from last year’s garden, which I let lay fallow, followed with lots of kitchen scraps (onions and things like that which the chickens can’t eat), and topped with the bedding from the coop.  I have named her Margery: The Almighty Trash Heap.  What?  I grew up on the Muppets.


The last little bit of growing going on around here.  Last week I could hear a kitten crying.  It was coming from my neighbors house’s direction.  Not wanting to just go poking around their house, I knocked on the front door and asked if they had a cat.  They said yes, that it was safely enjoying the nice weather on their back porch.  I explained about the crying and was given permission to investigate.  In a hole in the retaining wall next to their house, a cat had had her kittens.  I heard a growl, looked down and saw her sea green eyes staring back at me.  I found the kitten that had fallen out of her little den and placed her back inside.  I told my neighbors what I’d found and went back home.  The other day, my husband noticed her walking by carrying a kitten.  She and her little family have taken up residence in my potting shed.  I make her scrambled eggs, because nursing kittens seems like hard work, especially for a homeless single mother.  I hope she stays around because we have pack rats that sometimes live in our garage.



Grow Your Own

Ms. Sassypants, Goose

I love my chickens.  They each have their own personalities, their own likes and dislikes, and their own weird habits.  Not that going broody is weird, but it is not too common with many modern breeds.  The further they get away from their jungle fowl ancestors, the less likely they are to go broody.  It reduces egg production, so it’s been selectively bred out of many breeds.  Goose is Blue Splash Marans and she regularly goes broody.

Being broody is a reproductive response brought about by the lengthening days and warm weather, but it can occur at any time of year.  You will know your hen is broody because she will not leave her nest but once or twice a day to eat, relieve herself, and grab a drink.  Then she’s right back on the nest.  My reliably broody hen, Goose, also fluffs up and makes dinosaur noises at me when I disturb her.  If they don’t have eggs to sit on they will also brood rocks, light bulbs, kittens, nothing at all, or whatever they can steal and roll under their breast.  Goose also removes patches of feathers on her underside to improve heat transfer and humidity to her eggs.  I’ve let her hatch babies a few times and each has been a disaster, but I’m still willing to try.  So is she.

The first batch of eggs I set under her was a mix of the flock’s eggs.  I d9182_10206315541467795_4563548209775659296_nidn’t consider things like temperament, I just chose eggs from my favorite hens.  Six in total, and she hatched all six.  There were three males and three females.  My rooster, Dr. Orpheus, is getting on in years, so I do hope to hatch out a male with his sweet disposition eventually.  I never got to find out with that brood.  The chicks were about four weeks old when disaster struck.

10172863_10202328991046526_2234673645002332596_n.jpgIn the middle of the night, their nursery coop was attacked by a raccoon.  That bastard killed two of my baby females and maimed one to the point where we had to put her down.  The three males, of course were fine.  Nature is a funny bitch sometimes.  A few months later, all three of those males were dead because of the raccoons, too.

Clearly I needed to beef up security on my nursery coops.  That’s been done.

The next time I set eggs, I chose those from Goose and her sister, Duck Duck, as well as my sweet Petunia (an Easter Egger with blue eggs).  The mistake I made with that brood was not removing her and her clutch from the main population.  When it came time for the babies to hatch, the other chickens murdered them.  There is something in a non-broody hen’s brain that equates the peeping of chicks with killing.  I managed to save one and move her with Goose into their own nursery coop.  I will never make that mistake again, either.  Finding their poor little bodies mangled on the floor of the run is heartbreaking.

Just because I haven’t had much success yet doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it.  When I was very young, we hatched and raised many, MANY babies from our jungle fowl.  Jungle fowl are excellent mothers, and very protective.  Sometimes secretive.  My favorite hen from that flock was Frances.  She was lowest in the pecking order and I never saw the rooster with her, so I never expected what happened.  She disappeared and we thought she’d gone to the Great Coop in the Sky.  Then she showed up twenty-some days later with fifteen babies!  We made her and her babies a little palace to protect them all.11393073_10204607775694718_2926777368240000059_n

You don’t need a broody hen to raise some babies.  A good incubator can be made cheaply from household goods, or there are many quality ones you can purchase.  Egg development to hatching is about 21 days and an excellent activity for anyone, not just kids.  Before the eggs hatch, make sure the place where you will brood the newborns is ready and warm.  Baby chicks cannot regulate their own temperature and don’t have the feathers to protect themselves from cold and drafts so it is important that the area and the litter is warm when the babies are put into it.  The brooder should include litter that is not slippery, like newspaper, to avoid injuring your chicks.  Look up spraddle-legged for more info on that.  It should also have good air flow without there being a draft on the babies.  The general rule of thumb is to keep the temperature at 95F the first week and to drop it by five degrees each week after that, but I find the chicks will tell me what they need.  If they are all piled up under their heat lamp and in distress (lots of peeping), they are cold.  If they are as spread out as possible and in distress (more peeping, panting, etc.) they are too hot.  Please be sure to do your research on this and find out what works best for you.  I do not intend for you to follow my instructions here.  This is what works for me.  I brood my chicks in my unused garden tub in my master bathroom.  Some people wall off part of their shed or coop.  Whatever you do, protect those babies from the grown birds until they stop making that peeping noise.
Goose is a good mother, but baby chicks don’t need a mom to show them how to eat or drink.  Instinct takes over and ensures the babies nourish and hydrate themselves after their yolks dry up a couple days after hatching.  Make sure you keep a clean source of water for them, and check their food often.

However you choose to expand your flock, have fun and stay positive.  Some babies, and adult birds, are not meant for this world, as I have found out again and again.  Enjoy them day by day, laugh at their adorable antics.

Mother Goose showing the kids a thing or two about foraging.


For the Love of Self-Seeding Annuals

Plant seeds once and enjoy them for years to come.

I have a kind of laissez-faire attitude towards my front flower border.  It started out as all grass when we moved in.  I planted some onions and some johnny jump-ups, but they did not compete well with the grass, and the moles got to the onions.  I used cardboard to help smother the grass and have slowly expanded the border.

Something I learned recently: a flower bed is free standing.  It doesn’t back up to a fence or a house, it has its own edges.  A flower border does edge a house or other such landscape feature.  We all learn new things everyday, don’t we?

The first few years of the border’s existence I planted irises and other bulbs, balsam, cleome, poppies, and various other things that either never came up or didn’t reseed themselves after one season.  I think forget-me-nots and foxgloves were on that list.  One important lesson I learned is that you should not plant cleome near a door or window.  It stinks.  Like a skunk.   It has little thorns and tends to be sticky, too, but it really smells bad.  We thought maybe a skunk lived under the house until we figured it out.  Balsam, a 11698689_10204817162449256_3141802106603781179_ntype of impatiens, doesn’t really have a smell that I noticed, and it is an enthusiastic self-seeder.  It seemed to like my backyard better – it gets more shade.  So, it moved from the front flower border to the back and just took over.  Its alternative name is touch-me-not because the seed pods explode when touched, sending seeds in every direction.

Poppies are my favorite flowers.  I don’t know if it is their shape, the variety of colors and forms they come in, their delicate nature, or their many uses that make me love them, but I do.  I adore 13423937_10206965058425313_946422004371879113_n.jpgthe sunny little California poppy, but I can’t get them to reseed.  I just haven’t found where they like to live yet.  I love the blowsy Papaver somniferum my mother gave me because they look like fluffy pink pompoms and never fail to cheer me up.  They grow next to my hollyhocks and pop up every year next to the porch.  I have other varieties of P. somniferum that come up every year as well.  They are so delicate when in bloom, and their seed heads add structure and texture to the garden when the petals fall away.  I have Oriental poppies in the garden, too, but they tend to keep to themselves.

One spring I noticed a frothy looking patch of greenery growing in the dirt around a newly planted apple tree.  It looked like dill, all feathery, but was low to the ground and didn’t have the right smell to be dill.  I watched it for a few days and it turned out to be 13331167_10206868888581127_750756306046207427_nlove-in-a-mist, or Nigella damascena.  As soon as it set seeds in its interesting, ball-shaped, horned seed pod, I gathered it up and spread it around in the front border.  It appeared again the next spring in the hot, sunny part of the border and provides a nice counterpoint of color next to the orange Oriental poppies nearby.  One of my neighbors must grow these in their garden up the road.  I like to joke that I captured it from the wild.


Another, very enthusiastic flower to volunteer in my border is the larkspur.  I’m not sure of the variety because the seeds were gifted to me, but they come in a lovely range of intense pink-purple, lavender, white, and some interesting shades in between.  These also grow in one of the flower beds I have up the hill and fill it to the brim every year and have started escaping down the hill.


Cosmos tend to do well in this border, but they’ve all moved to the front.  Mine are rather taller than what the seed packet said to expect, sometimes over 6 feet tall!  Last fall, in order to combat them self-seeding at the front of the border, I bent the10464018_10202534664708239_3752092382108543707_n.jpgm all back towards the house so hopefully their tall, feather-leaved beauty grows back there.  I mixed in some Gaillardia, or blanket flower, and some sweet peas with them; marigolds always find a spot to pop up near the front of the border.  I also planted dill once in this border years ago and it reliably comes up every year, much to our delight and to the necessary enjoyment the swallowtail butterfly’s caterpillars.

These are all annuals that I planted on purpose at one point or another in my border.  I have some others that come and go in that border and around the house that some may consider weeds.  I have a particular fondness for Scotland, so whenever a thistle pops up, I keep it.  They smell really nice and I’m sure there are some beneficial insects that like them.  Various types of milkweed come up in the yard, which I also let grow and seed where they wish.  They, of course, are beneficial to butterflies like the Monarch, and with populations of such a beautiful and important insect dwindling, I will do anything I can to help them.  There is also a healthy population of some kind of daisy growing around the house that I let stay.  They’re so beautiful in their simplicity.


In general, my gardens’ purposes are to provide food or beauty to my family, but anything I can do to help the local insect populations, particularly those of the pollinating insects, I will do.  I do my best to plant natives, especially ones that provide food for the bees and caterpillars.  With increased use of pesticides, especially neonicotinoids, the honey bee population in this country has dramatically decreased.  We need these animals in order to produce food for ourselves, so it is worth our efforts to welcome and feed them in our gardens.  This year I plant on making bee houses for the non-social varieties that live around the house.  We have a few wood bees who have industriously dug their holes into the rafters of the porch, and I hope to attract a few more by placing the bee houses in the gardens.

I do research to figure out which varieties of plants provide the most nectar for my bee and butterfly friends, and which plants their young need for development.  There are many sources for this research and a good place to start is Monarch Watch.  This site will provide information about Monarch migration, foods, tagging, and much more.  You can also buy plants from them that will benefit these pollinators.