Beautify – November 2016

Contents (Click on a title or scroll)

Gardens of Imperfection

Houseplants: Must have!

Garden Remodel Update

Gardens of Imperfection

by Whitney Miller, Advanced Master Gardener, MGANM “Techie Chick”

Many gardeners have a misconception of perfection for their gardens. They think that perfection has to mean clean, debris free, and full of perfect specimen plants. This brings to mind images of gardens like Versailles and Butchart. While these gardens inspire awe and serenity, they are by no means the only way to keep a garden. In fact, gardens like these require a multitude of staff and a lot of chemicals to keep them looking this way.

Any homeowner can have a beautiful and perfect looking garden if they follow simple rules of imperfection.

  • Leave your leaves. Leaf debris allows natural decay to occur and can replenish micronutrients in your soil. The debris also provides cover and concealment for a multitude of living creatures.
  • Leave fallen branches and trees. According to the Xerces Society, “Most bees nest in small warrens of tunnels and cells they construct underground. Others nest in narrow tunnels often left behind by beetle larvae in dead trees, and a few use the soft pith in some plants.” (
  • Leave seed heads and stalks on plants. This can provide a nesting place and food source for small birds or mammals through the winter. The more food sources that mice have available out in the garden, the less likely they are to try to find their way into your home!
  • Let there be imperfections in your plants. Just as with humans, no plant is perfect. A stunted branch or leaf full of aphids is okay! Those aphids create honeydew, which feeds sugar ants, which feed birds. If we control the aphids we stunt the food web by stopping it in its tracks. Allowing nature to take its course can be a beautiful thing to observe and share.

A few more garden tips

  • Diversify your plantings. While a vast swath of coneflower looks beautiful, it provides food for a limited number of insects and birds. When you add just two additional plant species you open your garden up to three to four times the number of birds and insects. Our native bee populations need all the help they can get, and diversifying your garden can make a major impact.
  • Go native. Native plants have had hundreds of years to adapt to their specific climate while continuing to thrive. They require less ‘fuss’ over the age of your garden versus non-natives, and have a symbiotic relationship with native birds, bees, and insects. Of all the choices you can make in your garden, this could possibly be the decision with the biggest impact.
  • When in doubt, ask your local Master Gardeners for help. In Michigan, we have our local Extension offices, Smart Gardening websites, and Ask an Expert (1-888-678-3464). If you are outside the state of Michigan, a simple Google search for your local Extension will begin your journey toward a perfectly imperfect and healthy garden.

Houseplants by Sonia Clem

Houseplants: Must have!

by Cheryl Gross, Advanced Master Gardener, Vice President MGANM, President Plant It Wild

Even before the research was completed on gardening benefits to our body, mind and spirit, gardeners already knew that spending time in and around plants made us feel better, happier.  Now we know that plants emit gasses and scents and soil contains bacteria and fungi which contribute to our overall wellbeing.  In northern Michigan, gardeners are a happy bunch between May and October.  However, our long, chilly winter can dampen our spirits.  We are in withdrawal…unless we include indoor gardening with houseplants!

The benefits of houseplants on indoor environmental quality and human health have now been well researched.  NASA has spent considerable research time on the benefits of houseplants in an enclosed environment.  Some chemical companies have researched the effect on plants in the home and workplace to reduce human exposure to chemicals in building materials, carpeting and paints.  Plants clean the air, emit oxygen, lift moods, inspire better memory and creativity, and more.  There is a recommendation to have one indoor plant for every 100 square feet of living space.  That would be 14 plants for a 1,400 square foot house for adequate benefit.

One plant for every 100 square feet is a lot of plants!  Fortunately, there are a wide variety of plants from which to choose.  There are plants suited to dry air, moist air, bright light, limited light, flowering and limited flowering, high maintenance and low maintenance.  Following are some of the top plants in some of these categories.  It is a very limited list.  Check out the referenced websites to discover more.  As we move into the colder months, and spend more time indoors, add houseplants to ramp-up your wellbeing.

Best for Air Quality:

Peace lily, Spathiphyllum ‘Mauna Loa’

Florist’s chrysanthemum,  Chrysanthemum morifolium

English ivy,  Hedera helix

Variegated snake plant, mother-in-law’s tongue,  Sansevieria trifasciata ‘Laurentii’

Red-edged dracaena, Dracaena marginata

Unfortunately, each of these is toxic to animals.  If you have an animal who eats plants, you can find non-toxic plants that improve air quality, but are not as effective as the above.

Best for Low Light:

Cast iron plant, Aspidistra elatior (non-toxic)

Dracaena corn plant, Dracaena fragrans massangeana (toxic)

Mother in law’s tongue or snake plant, Sansevieria trifasciata  (toxic)

Dragon tree, Dracaena marginata (toxic)

ZZ plant,  Zamioculcas zamiifolia  (toxic)

Parlor palm, Chamaedorea elegans (non-toxic)

Best for Sunny Windows:

Jasmine star, Jasminum polyanthum

Cactus, a wide variety

Croton, Codiaeum variegatum, a variety of colors

Bird of paradise, Stelitzia reginae

Umbrella plant, Schefflera or Heptapleurum

Most flowering indoor plants need full daylight in a south or west window.

Many websites suggest that African violets and orchids are easier to grow than some believe.  Shop for indoor plants from credible sources.  Check with local flower shops and independent nurseries for quality plants.

Add indoor plants this fall to enjoy till May!  Let them improve your air quality and lift your spirits.


NASA Clean Air Study

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Garden Remodel Update

by Nancy Denison, Master Gardener

In the May issue of The Real Dirt I wrote about remodeling my backyard garden area with some large garden beds. And as I explained, (or complained?), the project grew to include a retaining wall, covered cement patio, flagstone path and interior garage drywall and insulation.

The first phase involved removing all the plant material and deciding what I would keep and what would be donated elsewhere. For weeks I had dozens of potted plants on the back and front deck. Friends came over and left with as many plants as they could carry.   I transported a Suburban full of pots down to the Detroit area to my sister and daughter. And then donated what I could to the Children’s Garden Plant sale in May. The rest waited patiently for their new home in my yard.

Next came the retaining wall to level out the area for the raised beds.  John Thomas of Northwoods Landscaping had it (mostly) done in a matter of days, which then allowed friend and contractor Mark Hartman to do his magic on the bed building. We had toyed with using galvanized sheets but in the end decided to go with cedar planks to create three 10’x4’x3’ beds. I don’t believe it was any less expensive to use wood, but it was certainly easier to obtain the materials.  And I’m really glad we did since once they were stained, they also matched the house.  The beds were built in the garage and after stapling in landscaping fabric (in an attempt to lengthen the life of the wood), Mark moved them with his front end loader, directed by his son, down the driveway and around to the back.  That was a sight to see as there was maybe a foot of clearance between the garage and studio walls. Once in place, small grid wire fencing was stapled to the bottom to thwart small critters from making their home underneath. We then threw scrap wood, granite pieces, and whatever else we thought appropriate into the bottom, followed by two buckets full of top soil in each bed.  I then added compost and peat. I knew the soil would sink as the summer progressed and have since added many more bags of soil to bring the level up.

Planting would come a few weeks later after adding pathways and returning many plants to the perennial planting beds which surrounds the raised beds.

Following the main garden work, the flagstone path which connected the studio, garage door, new cement patio and back deck was done. Of course the weather was very hot and sunny during installation of the stone.  But no one had a heart attack and it looks just perfect.

I was able to use all my transplants as well as the many 6×6 timbers which were removed from the original garden. We also designed new raspberry supports which ended up rather large, not to mention expensive, but add a wonderful artistic detail to the garden.

All that was planted into the raised beds, those from seed or small plants, grew very well. Beans, tomatoes, beets, lettuce, kale, zucchini and more eggplant than I could ever really want. I now have a better idea where to place certain things next year, for spacing and sunlight. But overall, I am extremely pleased with how much we could eat out of the garden. The pleasure of watching my granddaughter learn about how plants grow and eating cherry tomatoes and green beans right off the plant is priceless. The three months of hard labor resulted in a beautiful flow of outdoor living space that not only adds to the value of our home but to the pleasure of our lifestyle. And time will only tell if the pinkie swear vow of NO MORE PROJECTS my husband and I made will hold firm.

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