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A fun book that satisfies the thirst for gardening know-how

By Rhonda Nowak

for the Mail Tribune

“Hard science, mud-stained potting shed notes, old wives’ tales, folklore and superstition, happenstance, and habit have all contributed to a body of knowledge that we gardeners find so compelling.”

— Lorene Edwards Forkner, “Hortus Miscellaneous: A Gardener’s Hodgepodge of Information and Instruction,” 2007

I spent a lot of time lying around last weekend nursing a cold, and I happened to pick out “Hortus Miscellaneous” from the bookshelf to keep me company. I became so captivated by Forkner’s compilation of gardening tidbits that I almost forgot about my stuffy nose and head.

In fact, tucked among all the other bits of know-how in the book I found instructions on how to brew a good cup of herbal tea (p. 43). I didn’t know that all true teas are made from the leaves of Camellia sinensis, a relative of the beautiful camellias I grow in my garden. Herbal teas are actually called tisanes, pronounced tuh-zans.

Here are some of my favorite passages from the book:

Horticultural Latin (p. 3): The International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi and plants is the official document that spells out formal botanical names. The most recent edition of the ICN was published in June 2018, which replaced earlier editions dating back to 1753 when Carl Linnaeus, known as the father of taxonomy, published his volume, “Species Plantarum.”

Testing Seed Viability (p. 4): I have a container full of leftover seed packets that I can’t bear to throw out. Forkner suggests these steps to estimate germination:

1. Place 10 seeds on a damp paper towel sealed in a plastic bag. 2. Put the bag in a warm, sunny spot and watch for germination. 3. Multiply the number of germinated seeds by 10 to gain a viability percentage: Greater than 70 percent, sow as directed; 40-60 percent, sow more heavily than indicated on the seed package; less than 40 percent, replace seeds with a fresh package.

How to Moss Pots (p. 9): If you like the look of mossy plant containers for your garden, here’s how to create them with new terracotta pots: Paint the outside of the pot with yogurt, buttermilk or beer (all of which contain live cultures); then rub the pot with living soil and set in a damp, shady place for several weeks.

Dancing Bees (p. 19): We all know bees have a stupendous number of skills, but did you know they are talented dancers, too? Forkner informs us that scout bees communicate the location of a food source to other bees in the hive by performing different dance moves — circles if the food is nearby and figure-eight patterns if the food is farther away. The other bees gather around and imitate the movements in order to internalize the location, similar to the way we repeat a number over and over to remember it.

Nighttime Scented/Blooming Plants (p. 41)— I love the way white flowers shine in the moonlight and, apparently, so do moths and other nocturnal pollinators. Here are some white flowers that emit their rich fragrance at nighttime (be careful, though, as some of these plants are poisonous): datura, evening primrose, evening-scented stock, flowering tobacco, honeysuckle and night-scented phlox.

On page 85, there’s also an extensive list of the plants in Vita Sackville-West’s famous White Garden at Sissinghurst Castle in England.

Slug-Be-Gone Vanishing Spray (p. 50): Combine 1 1/2 cups ammonia with 1 1/2 cups water in a 1-quart spray bottle. Apply early in the season when slugs first appear. The solution kills slugs and breaks down into a form of nitrogen that benefits plants.

On page 51, Forkner tells us that plants deficient in nitrogen (N) will often have yellowed leaves and stunted growth. Symptoms of a phosphorous (P) deficiency include a red or purple tint to leaves along with stunted growth, whereas yellow leaf tips and margins that turn brown and weak stems are symptomatic of a deficiency of potassium (K).

Good to Know (p. 89): Parsley has a long history of use as an antidote to poison. When warring factions came together to eat a meal, a sprig of parsley was placed on the plate to indicate that poison was not intentionally added to the food — similar to the pirates’ parley.

Cubic Yard Coverage (p. 91): One cubic yard of landscaping material covers 324 square feet 1 inch deep; 162 square feet 2 inches deep; 108 square feet 3 inches deep; 81 square feet 4 inches deep; and 54 square feet 5 inches deep.

Degrees of Shade (p. 124): When considering planting a shade garden, it’s helpful to know: Partial shade means plants are exposed to direct sun for part of the day and are shaded for at least half of the day. Filtered/dappled shade means sunlight passes through a tree canopy to form patterns of light and shade (the best conditions for most “shade” plants).

Light or open shade is a bright, even shade in open gardens that have tall trees or buildings nearby. Full/deep shade has little to no direct sunlight, as in a dense woodland (the most difficult environment for most “shade” plants to thrive in).

Millennium Seed Bank (p. 132): The international partnership was established in 1996 by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew to protect plant species from extinction. The project aims to collect seeds from 75,000 species of plants by 2020 (25 percent of known flora worldwide). The seed bank is housed in West Sussex and includes huge underground vaults where the seeds are stored in temperatures of -4 degrees F.

How to Keep Houseplants Watered During an Extended Absence (p. 138) – 1. Cut a piece of pantyhose 12-18 inches long. 2. Bury one end of the hose in the soil around the plant’s root zone. 3. Place the other end of the hose in a container of water placed above the plant, so the water will wick down into the soil as the plant needs it.

I could go on and on, but I will leave off where I started with Forkner’s explanation of the Latin term officinalis (p. 208), the species name given to dozens of garden plants such as Calendula officinalis (pot marigold) and Melissa officinalis (lemon balm). Nowadays, we use “office” to mean any place of business, but in Medieval times an “officinal” was a place where healing herbs were kept. Thus, plants with the epithet officinalis were used for medicinal purposes.

Be sure to find a copy of “Hortus Miscellaneous” and settle in for a fascinating read. Then gather your gardening friends around and amaze them with how much you know!

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/ and check out her podcasts and videos at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.