After many years I am still a beginner, not a master gardener, nor a landscape architect, nor any other qualified expert. I simply love plants—all plants, from the Redwoods in the California fog to the moss in the cracks of my stoop. That makes for a big garden! I like to watch plants. They are such super-slow motion creatures. That gives us time. These pages are some of my watchings.

Nikolas Majchrzak




01 Lantana Opening 00

Lantana flowers have the curious habit of changing colors. A single umbel cluster can have on it yellow, orange, and red flowers. Watch for a few days and the colors will change.


There are other color variations. They might be yellow, salmon, and pink.

Lantana - pink


Or yellow, lavender, and violet.

Lantana - purple 2


Plant breeders are coming up with even more colors. Whichever colors the plants may be, the first flowers to open up are usually yellow, sometimes such a light shade of yellow that it may look white. As more new yellow flowers open, the older ones begin to turn darker. Here’s how it looks on a yellow, orange, and red Lantana, sometimes called the “Marmalade Bush.”


01 Lantana Opening 01

The flower umbels begin as a cluster of red butterfly shaped buds. 


01 Lantana Opening 02

The stems below the butterflies lengthen, and buds begin opening into yellow flowers around the perimeter of the umbel, 


01 Lantana Opening 03

As more flowers open toward the center, the older flowers start to turn orange.


01 Lantana Opening 05

As still more flowers open, moving toward the center of the cluster, the new ones are yellow, the next newest are orange, and the oldest are now becoming red.


01 Lantana Opening 07

The process continues until all the flowers are red. The most mature flowers are always the darkest until all the flowers reach the same dark colorWhat’s going on? Why is this happening? 

The flowers begin with a yellow color. The yellow color is produced by “carotene.” Carotene is an orange pigment that is important for photosynthesis, that mysterious, magical, miraculous process by which plants can take almost nothing–air and sunlight–mix it with water and convert it into a two hundred ton Sequoia tree trunk, or a delicate, paper-light fringed Gentian flower, and everything else in between that is green and growing. Not to mention that in the process the photosynthesizing plants maintain atmospheric oxygen levels and supply all of the organic compounds and most of the energy necessary for life on earth.

The common carrot gets its name from the orange photosynthetic pigment carotene, which givea the carrot its color.

Carrots - Carotene


Carotene also gives an orange color to other fruits and vegetables, like sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, and chanterelle mushrooms. Carotene - Sweet Potato


Carotene - Cantaloupe


Carotene - Chanterelle


Orange leaves in fall are showing the carotene after the masking green chlorophyll dies.

Carotene - Fall Leaves


Highchair babies with very pale skin who eat a lot of pureed carrots, squash, and sweet potatoes can get an orange glow to their complexions. That “healthy glow” is even visible in adults who eat a lot of fruits and vegetables with carotene in them. 

Carotene - ComplexionUntouched photos of a person who ate fruits and vegetables with carotene.


In lower concentrations carotene gives the yellow color to milk-fat and butter.

Carotene - Butter


Carotene is what give the freshly opened Lantana flowers their yellow color.

01 Lantana Opening 02


As soon as the yellow Lantana flowers get pollinated by the wind or an insect, the flower petals start to change color. Why does that happen?
01 Lantana Opening 03
Because a chemical called “anthocyanin” is produced by the fertilized flower. Anthocyanin is a pigment that produces a red, purple, or blue color, depending on the pH.
The pH difference is the cause of the pink or blue colors of the common Hydrangea. Pink flowers are produced in alkaline soil, the blue in acidic soil. Most soils are not acidic, so garden centers sell acidic treatments for soil for people who want to grow the more exotic looking blue Hydrangeas.
Anthocyanin - Hydrangea
Pink and blue flowers on one Hydrangea
indicates the soil is losing its acidity.
Anthocyanin is a water-soluble pigment that is stored in microscopic water sacs in every cell of the plant. It has the important job of acting as a “sunscreen,” protecting cells from high-light damage by absorbing blue-green and ultraviolet light. It also acts as a powerful antioxidant, protecting the plant from free radicals.
This is amazing, complicated, and intricately engineered stuff.
In the fertilized yellow-orange-red Lantana it is the production of anthocyanins in the red range that cause the color changes. The flowers come out showing the yellow of their photosynthesizing carotene. Once the flowers start producing anthocyanin the red color overwhelms the yellow. As more and more red is produced, the yellow flowers first look orange, and finally red.
01 Lantana Opening 05
And that’s why Lantana flowers change colors. 
Lantana plants will blossom profusely in  full sun. The flowers tend to come in waves, all blooming at once, and then a slight dormancy while another wave of new flowers develop. The plant is treated as an annual except in the deep south where some varieties are perennial. It’s a shrubby plant. In its native habitat it can grow as high as three feet and more.
Because of its woody stem some people grow Lantana as a flowering bonsai. Even though the leaves are disproportionately large for bonsai,  picking off all the leaves in spring will produce a crop of much smaller second-growth leaves.
Lantana - Bonzai
Lantana can also be grown as a standard or as topiary. Like bonsai, that will take a few years and the plant will need to be brought inside for overwintering.
Lantana - Standard - Tree
In parts of Africa, where imported Lantana has become an invasive shrub, there are huge billboards along the highways with giant letters that sat, “Help stamp out Lantana!”  But village people in Africa grow a native Lantana as a hedge.

There are other plants besides Lantana that change flower colors. the most common being Tritoma, the Red Hot Poker.

Tritoma 01

Lantana is an easy flower to grow, It is hardy, loves heat, is drought tolerant, and attracts butterflies like a magnet. All that plus the changing flower colors to charm kids and adults alike. What more can you ask from carotene and anthocyanin?

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After many years I am still a beginner, not a master gardener, nor a landscape architect, nor any other qualified expert. I simply love plants—all plants, from the Redwoods in the California fog to the moss in the cracks of my stoop. It makes for a big garden. I like to watch plants. They are such super-slow motion creatures. That gives us time. These pages are some of my watchings.

Nikolas Majchrzak



How to Keep a Goldfish Alive in a Goldfish Bowl




The common wisdom among fish keepers is that it can’t be done–you cannot keep a goldfish alive in a goldfish bowl. They die within a week. Or less.

So many people for so long have been unsuccessful in keeping goldfish in a bowl that pet stores now advise against it, telling you to get a ten gallon aquarium, or better, a twenty. But all you wanted was a goldfish for the kids, not a major investment in a new hobby.

I have been able to keep goldfish alive in a goldfish bowl for years. You can too. It’s really quite easy.

Goldfish bowls come in different sizes and shapes. Some are spherical and others have flat sides. The ones with the flat sides are called “drum bowls.” Some sellers are calling goldfish bowls “betta bowls,” because bettas, the Siamese Fighting Fish, breathe air and easily live in a small space. Along with goldfish bowls pet stores also sell mini-aquariums with filters and lights. Pricey compared to a bowl. That might be the ticket for you, but I still prefer the classic “goldfish bowl”–a glass, 2.5 gallon drum bowl. 

Goldfish Bowl 00

It has that wonderful sliced sphere shape, and the flat sides make a great window into the underwater world. 



Here’s the formula for keeping your fish alive and healthy in a goldfish bowl:

                                            Change a quarter of the water twice a week.

                                            Use aged water


It’s that simple. And it’s easy. Here’s how to do it, You will need:

                                             1. a one gallon plastic ice cream pail

                                             2. a siphon.

                                             3. an old tooth brush

                                             4. some sort of houseplant watering can.

Goldfish Bowl 01

The siphon and pail make it easy and  fast to change water. It’s one of the few “ten minutes jobs” that really takes only ten minutes. 

Siphon off 1/4 of the water into the plastic pail. Use the tooth-brush to clean the inside of the glass if necessary. Fill the bowl back up with the “aged water” from your watering can. Voila! Done, in less than ten minutes!

That’s all there is to it. The rest of this article is an explanation of why you are doing these things and some details about how to do them, plus a few tips on how to make a common fish bowl into a “Wow-Bowl.” When people see it they will say, “Wow! That is so beautiful.”


The only thing you may not have around the house is the siphon. You can find them in any pet store.


The siphon is billed as a “gravel vacuum.” Indeed it is. The large ones are for large aquariums. They will empty your bowl before you can clean it. Get the smallest one you can find. Push it gently into the gravel and it will suck all uneaten food and fish waste up the tube and down into the pail. You’ll be able to see it. The gravel is too heavy to go up the siphon so it just burbles and swirls on the bottom of it. Move the siphon around until you have vacuumed the entire bottom of the bowl. Time it so that you are done before you fill up the pail. Stop an inch or two below the pail edge. The waste water is great for watering plants.



Unless you have your own well or freshwater spring, your tap water is probably treated with chlorine and fluoride. Both are poisonous to fish. The good news is that both will evaporate from an open container if left to sit overnight.  An added bonus, in the morning the water will be the same temperature as the water in your fishbowl. 

Just fill up your plant watering can and let it sit until you do your next change. Easy. Your water is now aged.

When re-filling the bowl with your aged water, add it carefully, filling it up to the top of the circle portion of the bowl. The old wisdom was that you must never fill the bowl up because you will not leave enough surface area for oxygen. Don’t worry about that. By changing the water twice a week, you are supplying plenty of oxygen. In addition, if you don’t fill up the bowl, it will look unfinished, unkempt, un-cared for, unprofessional, and lacking all potential to be a submarine window.



The water in a fishbowl or an aquarium goes through some dramatic chemical changes as you introduce fish. These changes are a nitrogen cycle, often simply called “The Aquarium Water Cycle.” There is no getting around it. The water in your bowl or aquarium will begin cycling as soon as you put fish into it. If you just let it sit empty for two weeks hoping the water will be good for the fish, nothing will happen. The cycle begins when you introduce fish. It takes about three weeks for the water to go through its complete cycle, and it is a dangerous time for the fish. After it’s cycled, the water will turn crystal clear and the fish will look healthy and happy,

Here’s what happens. Fish waste is full of ammonia. Goldfish put out more ammonia than tropical fish.  A lot more. Ammonia is poisonous to fish and will kill them. That’s why so many people lose their goldfish in the first week. During the first week of the cycling process you need to change half the water every two days. That’s not hard. Ten minutes.

Thankfully there are bacteria that eat ammonia. But it takes a while for the those bacteria to grow enough to eat all the ammonia your fish is putting out. That’s the dangerous first week.

The problem is that the ammonia-eating bacteria convert the ammonia to nitrites. Nitrites, too, are poisonous to fish. But thankfully again there is another bacteria that eats nitrites. And that will take another week or so to get stable to where they keep the nitrites in check while the other bacteria are keeping the ammonia in check.

It almost sounds to good to be true. Almost. The nitrite-eating bacteria also produce something–nitrates. Nitrates are not harmful to fish in small quantities. In large amounts they will weaken and kill fish. And that’s where your bi-weekly water changes come in. You are part of the aquarium water cycle.


Fish eat and put out ammonia. Bacteria eat the ammonia, but put out nitrites. Other bacteria eat the nitrites, but put out nitrates. And you dilute the nitrates twice a week. Be religious about it–twice a week–and you will be able to keep your goldfish in a bowl for years.



Most people think goldfish are those little orange fish they give away as prizes at county fairs. They are, but it you haven’t seen the “fancy goldfish,” you are in for a surprise. There are Fantails and Veiltails, Shibunkins and Ryukins, Black Moors and Orandas, Bubble Eyes and Lionheads, Celestials, and Pearl Scales, not to mention combinations of all of them. When most people see these fancy goldfish they don’t realize they are looking at goldfish. I once had an aquarium with a white goldfish with a red-orange hat, a yellow goldfish without a fin on top, a black long-fined, big-eyed goldfish, and one that was blue, orange, and white. People gasped when they saw them and asked what kind of fish they were.

Goldfish 01 Common

Common Goldfish

.Goldfish 02 Viel-tailed Oranda

Vieltail Oranda


Goldfish 05 Ryunkin Veiltail b



Goldfish 03 Bubble-Eye



Goldfish 06 Veiltail



Goldfish 04 Pearl Scale Calico

Pearl Scale Calico


Don’t run out and get an expensive and fragile fancy goldfish for your fist attempt at goldfish keeping, But don’t settle for a 13 cent feeder goldfish either. You might want to start with a Fan Tail. They are fairly cheap–anywhere from 88 cents to a couple of dollars. My fish in the picture at the top of this article is a two and a half-year old Fantail. It’s actually older, but I got it two and a half  years ago when it was small and cute.


Goldfish 05 Fantail

Fantail Goldfish

It can take up to three years for goldfish to get their true colors, rounded bodies, and long fins. That’s when they become quite stunning.  Sadly, most people never see their fish became surprisingly beautiful because the fish dies before it happens. But not yours.

Don’t try to keep more than one fish in a bowl until you are really good at this.



Goldfish food comes in flakes and pellets. Some pellets are large. They are for koi and pond goldfish. Some pellets float and some sink. Goldfish are really carp, so they are designed to eat off the bottom. They will have to reach in an unnatural way to get floating food. They can do it easily enough, but sometimes a fish  will suck in air along with the food. This can create a bubble inside that makes it hard for the fish to swim. If you see them bouncing around and veering toward the top it doesn’t necessarily mean they are sick, it may simply be a bubble hiccup. I once had a goldfish that would sleep on top of a plant leaf at the surface. In the morning I would see him gone “belly up,” and would reach for the net. But he would wake up and swim away. I finally got some sinking pellets.

Lots of fish food comes with some kind of “color enhancer.” It’s probably carotene. Babes in highchairs can turn a bit orange if they eat a lot of carrots. Color enhanced food is fine for your goldfish unless they are white. The food will turn them a yellow-orange. I had to look hard to find food without color additives.

Some of the pellet food will turn the water cloudy. It’s meant for pond fish where it doesn’t have much effect. But in a bowl it ruins the clarity of the water. 

Start with flakes. Go from there.


Don’t put your goldfish bowl in a sunny window. It will grow algae faster than you can clean it. The gravel will be green, the plants will be nearly black, the glass will be dirty green-brown.

Any light will grow algae in water. Even a table lamp six feet away. Like dust, algae is always there. We eat it and breathe it. That’s why you have a toothbrush in your goldfish bowl cleaning kit, to clean off the occasional algae on the glass. But if the light is too strong algae can become a plague in a goldfish bowl.

There are snails available that will eat algae. They really work and all you need to do is tidy up with your toothbrush.

Tracked Nerite Snail

Algae-eataing Tracked Nerite Snail

But if there is not enough algae they will vacate the premises looking for better pickings. You can get food for algae eating snails and fish.

If your bowl grows too much algae, and there is no helping it, you will have to take it all apart and clean everything. But save 10% of your old, cycled water. It will start your nitrogen cycle again in a few days. And try to reduce the light. 



You can make you goldfish bowl look like a glimpse into a natural looking underwater scene. It doesn’t take much, and when your friends see it they will indeed say, “Wow!”

                                                          You will need

                                                          1. some gravel

                                                          2. a plant

                                                          3. a background (optional)

                                                          4. a light (optional)

Gravel is available at any pet store. There are all sorts of colors, but I like something that looks natural. 

Aquatic plants are available at pet stores.  Ask for low light plants. You may want to start with a Java Fern or a small Amazon Sword Plant. 

If you just really are not into water gardening yet, there are artificial plants available. Avoid plastic ones. Fish can tear their fins on sharp edges. Silk plants are better. Many are reproductions of actual aquatic plants. 

If for some reason you don’t want a natural looking scene, you can get orange and purple gravel with yellow and pink plants. Oddly, goldfish seem to look good with almost anything. But remember, you are trying to highlight your fish, not compete with it.

But it’s the look through a little window at a realistic underwater world that gets the wows and people staring in delight. That requires making it as natural as possible. That will usually involve a background.

The simplest background is a black piece of paper cut to size and taped onto the back of the bowl. It hides what is behind the bowl–usually stuff that distracts from the fish, like lamp cords or wall paper. If the background is neutral enough or if you have your bowl in a sunless window for light, you can manage without a background. But the background makes the bowl its own little water room.

There are printed backgrounds available made for aquariums. It’s easy to make your own. Find a large picture in a magazine or put several together. They don’t have to make a scene, they have to make a background. The background in the picture at the top of this page is an old oil painting reproduction printed on cardboard. It got bent and I was about to throw it out, but I tried it behind the bowl. It had a nice mystery and rock feel. The actual picture is a city-scape of buildings. I turned the picture upside down and tilted it slightly. 

If your bowl is not near a window, you will need some kind of light. It’s for the plant and for you to see your fish. A table lamp might work. A desk lamp with a 40 watt fluorescent bulb can do. I have an LED goose-neck desk lamp.


The LEDs were too strong and grew lots of algae, so I covered them with a blue plastic lid I found in our kitchen wastebasket.


I hide my lamp and distracting side elements with a piece of black foam board with a fishbowl window cut out of it. It just leans against the front of the bowl,

Experiment. Try different things. When you are pleased with it, and the water finally turns crystal clear so that the fish looks like it is floating in air, you yourself will say, “Wow!”


Goldfish Bowl 04




My son sent me this: 

“I can tell you haven’t bought your snail yet 😉  If you had, that section would have been much larger. There would even have been gushing. Is there perhaps an aesthetic speedbump on your road to snaildom? Nothing is more natural than a snail in a pond (see, it sounds like a colloquialism already!), and he/she will blend in very nicely with your rocks.  If that doesn’t convince you, then consider that i haven’t touched a toothbrush in months, all the while handily violating the primary maxim of ‘never put your bowl next to a sunny window’!”



Fish, reptiles, and trees keep growing as long as they are alive. Goldfish in a pond can reach prodigious proportions. A small environment will stunt the size of a fish, but goldfish can still get mighty big compared to most tropical fish. If your fish gets so big that it can barely make a U-turn in your bowl, you will have a wonderful problem. By then you will be an expert at goldfish keeping and will love your fish enough to consider an aquarium. Or a half whisky barrel. Or maybe you could re-landscape and create a koi pond with a waterfall.

Meanwhile, as your fish grows larger, you may want to increase the frequency of the water changes–it only takes ten minutes. Just watch your fish–the way you watch your plants. If your goldfish is spending a lot of time at the top gulping air, change the water.



If you are interested in trying tropical fish, your room temperature should not go below 68 degrees Fahrenheit. White Clouds, Neon Tetras and Glowlight Tetras are a good choice. They are tiny and cute, and stay that way, and they have iridescent “lights” that charm children and adults alike. They look best with a dark background. White Clouds, like Goldfish, are cold-water fish, and are quite hardy. Neons and Glowlights are a bit more fragile. 

White Cloud Mountain Fish

White Cloud Mountain Fish

Tetra - Neon 2

Neon Tetra

Tetra - Glowlight 2

Glowlight Tetra

They are all part of “The Peaceful Kingdom,” which means they are perfectly friendly and get along. Many lovely tropical fish are territorial, which makes them surprisingly aggressive, mean, and pugnacious, especially in a small, confined space, and they often end up killing each other. White Clouds, Neons, and Glow Lights are not only peaceful, they are schooling fish. They look best and do best in a small group.

Betas, the Siamese Fighting Fish, will live in a bowl, or something even smaller, but they have to be kept alone. With their long fins and iridescent colors they can be spectacular. But to me they look more like a display than part of an underwater world.


Betta, the Siamese Fighting Fish

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After many years I am still a beginner, not a master gardener, nor a landscape architect, nor any other qualified expert. I simply love plants—all plants, from the Redwoods in the California fog to the moss in the cracks of my stoop. That makes for a big garden! I like to watch plants. They are such super-slow motion creatures. That gives us time. These pages are some of my watchings.

Nikolas Majchrzak



Microsorum pteropus

Java Fern 02b

You won’t be able to keep this lovely underwater plant unless you have an aquarium or at least a goldfish bowl. if you haven’t, do consider the latter. The children will love it. (To see how to keep a goldfish alive in a bowl–few seem to be able to do it, but it’s easy if you know how–see the next post, “Java Fern – Addendum”)

If you try to grow aquatic plants in a fish bowl or an aquarium that is near a window, you will grow more algae than lovely plants. If you give them less light, most aquarium plants die. Enter the Java Fern. It can thrive in dim light.

Java Ferns are unusual plants for another reason. They have roots, but the roots should not be planted in the substrate–that’s the fancy name aquarists call the soil-like base in an aquarium. It is usually gravel or sand. If Java Fern roots are planted, the plant will rot and die. Like tree orchids, these plants pick up their nutrients from what surrounds them, not from the soil. Instead of planted roots a Java Fern needs to be anchored to a rock or a piece of water-logged driftwood. 

Still another odd thing about Java Ferns is that they reproduce asexually by a process called “vegetative apomixis,” producing baby plants on the leaves of adult plants.

01 Java Fern 05

vegetative apomixis on a Java Fern

There are some houseplants that do it as well. Kalanchoe daigremontiana, “Mother of Thousands,” is one. It produces babies along the perimeter of its leaves. It is also known as “Mexican Hat Plant.” It does look a bit like a Mexican sombrero with tassels. 

Babies on Leaves 01

Kalanchoe daigrfemontiana

Java Ferns seem to have specific  “mother-leaves,” for not all leaves will bear children. Usually it is old or injured leaves that produce the new plants. 

01 Java Fern 02

baby Java Fern reaching for the substrate

First bumps appear on the underside of a mother leaf, looking like there is something wrong with the plant. The bumps turn into tiny roots and leaves. Soon the roots are reaching toward the substrate for some kind of perch while the leaves begin to look like papooses riding high on their mother’s back. Once the new plants root themselves on a piece of wood or stone, the mother leaf dies. 

01 Java Fern 03

A juvenile plant on a mother leaf

You can buy a Java Fern in most pet stores. You may find them in a planted aquarium or from a special plant tank. Another way to get Java Ferns is in a plastic tube. The tube keeps them alive on the store shelves, as well as during shipping and handling, or even in your carry-on luggage when flying. 

These tubes are the modern versions of the “Wardian Case.”  In the 1800’s when European botanists were searching for exotic garden flowers in the Orient, the Americas, and South Africa, few specimens survived the sea voyage. Botanists who had risked their lives to gather specimens watched in horror as their hard gathered floral treasures wilted and died before the ship reached home. Salt spray and lack of fresh water did them in.

Nathaniel Ward, a British doctor and avid botanist of the time, kept 20,000 plants. Avid indeed! He also kept moth cocoons in sealed bottles. He noticed in one of them a fern spore had sprouted along with a grass seed. Both plants lived in the sealed bottle over four years. A light bulb turned on over Ward’s head. He had a friend construct a glass box. It not only preserved plants from the London coal smog, but by the 1840’s it completely revolutionized plant shipments on long voyages. 

Wardian Case 02

A Wardian Case

The Wardian Case led to the terrarium. When a terrarium was made waterproof instead of airtight it led to the aquarium. That opened a door to a whole new study of tropical fish and the hobby of fish keeping. Only recently have tropical fish keepers become underwater gardeners. The whole movement of “Aquascaping” has let to spectacular aquarium plantings like the one at the top of this post.

Wardian Cases are still available and some can be quite elaborate.

Wardian Case 03

Modern Wardian Case

It has all come full circle. The plant-shipping Wardian Case led to the terrarium, which led to the aquarium, and now we get aquarium plants in modern Wardian Cases. The new version of a Wardian Case is that plastic plant shipping tube.

01 Java Fern 01

Although Java Ferns are aquatic plants, the shipping tubes are not full of water, but they are covered so that the plant remains moist.

01 Java Fern 02

A small hole in the lid assures fresh air without drying out the plant.

The plant roots come in their own separate Wardian Case inside the first.

01 Java Fern 03

The mystery and wonder of these new kinds of cases is the root box is filled with some strange stuff. First there are those little white balls you see in potting soil. It’s called Perlite, and is made from a volcanic glass with moisture trapped inside. When heated the tiny glass crystals pop like popcorn to 13 times their original size. The trapped bubbles make the pieces snow-white. Because of its light weight Perlite is used for shipping and in construction materials. It is also used horticulturally as a “soil amendment,” improving aeration by keeping the soil loose and preventing compaction.

The second mystery inside the new Wardian Root Cases is a thing that looks like ice, but is as soft as Jelly. It is a non-toxic, moisture holding polymer gel.

01 Java Fern 04

Perlite and polymer gel

The stuff was invented in the 1960’s to grow plants in the Israeli desert. It’s been around a long time but hasn’t been commonly used until recently. You can add it to your flower pots or even garden soil and dramatically cut down on watering frequencies. It is even possible to grow plants in polymer gel without any soil.

In your Top Fin tube you may get two or more plants tied together. Unravel them all and be sure to wash the gel off completely or else it will mess up your fishbowl or aquarium.  

01 Java Fern 05

Tie your Java Fern to a small rock or a piece of water-logged drift wood.

01 Java Fern 06

Place it in your fish bowl or aquarium and watch it grow. This is a slow-motion activity.

01 Java Fern 08c

Come back in a year and be impressed with the progress of both Frankandorbob and his Java Fern. Or like Nathaniel Ward, come back in four years.


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After many years I am still a beginner, not a master gardener, nor a landscape architect, nor any other qualified expert. I simply love plants—all plants, from the Redwoods in the California fog to the moss in the cracks of my stoop. That makes for a big garden! I like to watch plants. They are such super-slow motion creatures. That gives us time. These pages are some of my watchings.

Nikolas Majchrzak



Cornus florida 

01 Flowering Dogwood

There is In the small town of Berea, Kentucky, a famous college. It’s a liberal arts college founded in 1855 and is simply called Berea College.  It is distinctive in several ways. It not only provided free education to all its students, it was the first college in the southern United States to be both co-educational and racially integrated. And that was before the Civil War.

01 Berea College

Berea College was founded by John Gregg Fee, a Christian pastor and abolitionist. He found a way to educate the poor students of Appalachia without charging tuition. Each student was required to work for the college, sharing the skills they learned at home. A furniture shop was opened, along with other trades, like blacksmithing, weaving, and broom-making. The products were sold to help fund the school.

Berea College still offers a no-tuition education. All students are given a full four-year scholarship and are required to participate in some form of work-study. Today Berea College is ranked number one among liberal arts colleges in the U.S. 

The high quality furniture made at Berea College is both famous and sought after. The college’s salesroom offers a variety of practical and unique products.

John Fee chose the name Berea for both the town and the college from the city in Greece mentioned in the Bible book of Acts where “the people of Berea were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” How apt. And what good fruition. 

The craftsmanship of Berea College spawned an arts and crafts culture in the town of Berea.

01 Berea - Brooms

The artisan community now includes a thriving population of weavers, instrument makers, furniture artisans, jewelry designers, glass workers, potters, painters, sculptors, and musicians.

01 Berea - Weaving

01 Berea - Carver

There are several Arts and Crafts Festivals throughout the summer. It’s a wonderful place to visit.

01 Berea - Dancers

The last time my wife and I were there we found in one of the shops a wood carved Aster. It was a three dimensional carving. It looked like an actual flower. You could pick it up and hold it in your hand. The carver had made overlapping slicing cuts to form the flower petals. It was fascinating. There was also another carved flower, but it was a bit strange. It had only four petals, but they were crooked and bent, and for some reason the carver had burned holes at the end of each petal leaving a scorch mark around it. We bought the Aster.

Years later I realized that the other “strange” flower was a perfect replica of a Dogwood flower. Being from Wisconsin I had never seen one. We thought Dogwoods were shrubs with red twigs, the Osier Dogwood, a pretty plant in its own right, especially in the snow.

Osier Dogwood

Flowering Dogwood trees are native everywhere east of the Mississippi River except for parts of Illinois and all of Wisconsin. A few states on the western side of the Mississippi in the south also have them.

An old story says that the Flowering Dogwood was the tree used for Jesus’ crucifixion. Ever since, the flowers are cruciform. The four ends of the cross have nail holes indicating the wounds of Christ, and do notice, the nail holes have blood stains around them.  

01 Dogwood - Nail Holes

As the bloom season comes to an end the yellow clump of  florets in the center of the cross becomes a spiky “crown of thorns.”

01 Dogwood - Thorns

There is also a pink variation of the Dogwood flower.

01 Dogwood - Pink

Like the Poinsettia the Dogwood’s flower petals are not really petals at all, but bracts–specialized colored leaves. The real flowers are actually the cluster of little, knobby florets in the center of the large bracts.

Unlike many flowering trees in spring that bloom only for a brief time, often wilting soon after the tree reaches full blossoming, the Flowering Dogwood’s blooms last for several weeks. That makes it a bit more predictable for planning “Dogwood Festivals,” as in the southern city of Atlanta.

The tree itself is not large, reaching only 30 feet in height. Because the branches grow horizontally, the tree often is wider than it is tall. As the flowers and leaves add weight to the growing twigs, the tips tend to droop giving the tree an umbrella shape. We have such an umbrella shading a corner of our deck. We love it.

In the wild Dogwoods are most often seen at the edge of the woods. In spring you will see an umbrella arc of white flowers sticking out of the woodlands along highways.

Dowood 02

In open sunlight the Flowering Dogwood makes an impressive specimen tree.


In fall Dogwood leaves turn red to maroon. Unlike most trees of the north that lose their leaves as soon as the color climaxes, Flowering Dogwood keeps its colored leaves for months. A gracious close to summer, indeed.

Dogwood Fall

Dogwoods are easy to identify. Their large white flowers in spring are characteristic. Their small size and arching umbrella shape are easy to spot. And their bark is like nothing else. It is a “dragon skin,” with many small scale-like separations..

01 Dogwood - Dragon Skin

Flowring Dogwood is an altogether lovely tree that brings three seasons of joy. If you want winter joy, too, get a Red-twig Dogwood as well.

FF 05-06-09 Dogwoods-c

If you happen to go to Berea in spring you will no doubt see Dogwood flowers. If you see carved wooden ones, set one aside for me.

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After many years I am still a beginner, not a master gardener, nor a landscape architect, nor any other qualified expert. I simply love plants—all plants, from the Redwoods in the California fog to the moss in the cracks of my stoop. That makes for a big garden! I like to watch plants. They are such super-slow motion creatures. That gives us time. These pages are some of my watchings.

Nikolas Majchrzak



01 Potunias 01

If you haven’t heard of them, they are a variety of Petunia given the clever name”Potunia.” But don’t think they are limited to flower pots, although in a pot or a hanging container they are impressive enough for your neighbors to comment. In the ground they can make impressive beds splashed with bright, unexpected colors.

That is one of the new and different things about these Potunias, they have some new colors not found in the old standbys. Who ever saw a yellow Petunia before?

Here are a few pictures from the official website.

Potunias 02e

Dark Red


Potunias 03c


There are others, like “Papaya,” “Lobster,” “Blackberry Ice,” and more.

Another thing about Potunias that is different is that they grow in a tight mound, a “bubble,” not in a clump of stringy spillers. That is distinctive and arresting to see. 

Yet another thing different about them is that they are more drought tolerant. That means less watering. Yay!

Here’s the link:  Good stuff, check it out.

We can thank the genius of plant breeders not only for Potunias, but for the whole array of new varieties of plants each year, plants easily available to everyone. Long past are the days when a Chinese emperor beheaded a slave for smuggling a precious and private flower seed from the royal garden, or when botanists risked headhunters and shipwrecks to bring home a new breed of flower. A color-splashed aisle of any garden center hardly reveals the history of pain and sacrifice that made it possible, or even imaginable. And now through the magical genius of genetic engineering, gene transfer, and gene splicing there are new and surprising varieties every year. 

Gardening is always changing. And it is one of the few things that changes for the better.

If you haven’t discovered “Potunias, go out and get one before they are all gone.

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After many years I am still a beginner, not a master gardener, nor a landscape architect, nor any other qualified expert. I simply love plants—all plants, from the Redwoods in the California fog to the moss in the cracks of my stoop. That makes for a big garden! I like to watch plants. They are such super-slow motion creatures. That gives us time. These pages are some of my watchings. 

Nikolas Majchrzak




Dwarf Greek Basil, Dark Opal Basil-Purple, Cilantro, Lettuce

Go trade your cow for some magic beans and you will make someone happy. Actually you don’t need a cow. A few dollars will be enough. And you should know that all seeds, not just Jack’s beans, are magic.

At least it seems like magic. For all the world plant seeds look like little pieces of dirt, or sand, or crumbs, or mouse droppings. But the seeds are worlds apart from all that inanimate stuff. They contain in their little marvelous packages the gift of life.  Under the proper circumstance those insignificant and ignorable things reveal the mystery of germination.  

When you participate in those “proper circumstances,” it’s a thrill and a joy to behold. You can even smell the new life! Ahhh.

When you share that springing forth of green it will make someone happy. If you yourself have never done it, then you will be the one you make happy.

Much of the difficulty and effort of seed starting has been removed by the modern seed starter kits. There was a day when gardeners would bake their soil in the oven, all the while building in their carpentry shops seed starting trays and cold frames. Many seeds were only started in greenhouses. Today all you need to do is to go to a garden center and for a few dollars purchase a mini table-top greenhouse. They work. And they don’t cost a lot. Add a few more dollars and you’ll have seeds enough to share. 

Once you try it you’ll be addicted. Try it. It’s a good addiction. Not only is it pleasurable, it adds beauty and flavor to your life.

Some starter kits have trays of little pots you have to fill with soil. I like the kind that comes with the soil already in the tray in the form of little flat disks that swell up when soaked in water.

Jifffy Seed Starter Kit

You can make your own mini-greenhouses from the clear plastic boxes used to package cakes or croissants or strawberries or salads. You can use butter and yogurt containers for larger transplant pots. You can buy just the soil disks separately, or you can make your own pots from toilet paper rolls or even egg shells. If you haven’t done this before, don’t make it a chore. Start with a seed starter kit. 

Seed starting kits come in different sizes. A nice size to begin with is a “Window Sill Greenhouse.”

Jiffy Window Sill Greenhouse

Add water and in ten minutes the disks will swell up to become little mesh bags of sterile starting mix. It’s a great show for kids to watch. The plants grow in the bags and when ready to transplant there is no digging up or disturbing the roots, just plant the little bag. 

Jiffy pot

After the bags swell up, you have to tear the tops open to have a planting surface. Here is a picture of swollen bags on the left, those with their tops opened in the center, and on the right those that have been planted. They have a layer of potting mix sprinkled on top. This tray turned into the one pictured at the top of this post. 

DSCF7098 2

Follow the instructions on the back of the seed packet for planting depth. There you will also find an ETA for the seedlings to appear. Put at least three seeds in each little bag. Germination is never 100%. Sometimes not even three seeds guarantees one sprouting in each bag. Other times you end up with a crowd in each bag. 

Water carefully. Don’t pour water on top of the newly planted seeds. It will wash them away. I use a plant mister to soak the tops of the bags after I sprinkle the seeds with a thin layer of soil. Be sure to press the soil down gently. Seeds need to be surrounded by moist dirt, not air.

The genius of the starter kits is the clear plastic cover that fits over the box. It truly is a greenhouse. Once seeds are planted they must not ever dry out. Your mini-greenhouse guarantees they won’t.


After the seeds are up, you can take the cover off.

A sunny spot is best. Seedlings tend to get “leggy”–long and thin–if they don’t have enough strong light. If your seedlings are in a window, be sure to turn them daily, or even more often. They will always turn to the light, nearly falling over to reach it. Once you grow seedlings a few times you may want to think about growing your plants under fluorescent lights. It’s easy enough to do, but that’s a topic for another day.

Seedlings are extremely fragile and drops of water can knock then over permanently. The starter trays hold water. Carefully pour water along the edges until all the bags have soaked it up. If the bags turn gray, they are getting too dry. But don’t leave a big puddle of water in the tray. Few seedlings are swamp plants, and will drown.

When the seeds get their second true leaves re-pot them into something bigger. The “seed leaves” don’t count as true leaves. They are really cotyledons, part of the mysterious inner stuff of seeds. If you have several seedlings in each bag, snip off all but the strongest one. Yes, one. That’s hard to do–I always want to keep them all.


If the weather is mild and past frosty nights, you can plant them outside. 


Amaranthus – Caudata (“Loves Lies Bleeding”)

The magical mystery of seeds is a great gift. It is not only something you can give to someone, it is a gift given to us all.

We are grateful.

And happy because of it.

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After many years I am still a beginner, not a master gardener, nor a landscape architect, nor any other qualified expert. I simply love plants—all plants, from the Redwoods in the California fog to the moss in the cracks of my stoop. That makes for a big garden! I like to watch plants. They are such super-slow motion creatures. That gives us time. These pages are some of my watchings. 

Nikolas Majchrzak



( Poinsettia – Euphorbia Pulcherrima)

Poinsettia 01

Joel Roberts Poinsett was an American physician, botanist, and statesman, serving in the House of Representatives, as the first Minister to Mexico (in the days before they were called ambassadors), and as the U.S. Secretary of War. He also had a hand in starting the Smithsonian Institute.  

He is the one who introduced us to the flower that is most associated with Christmas.

In 1825, as Minister to Mexico, Poinsett was traveling south of Mexico City.  There he found a lovely winter blooming plant. He sent samples back to the U.S., and within ten years the plants became known in the U.S. as “Poinsettias.”

In Mexico it is called “Flor de Noche Buena,” Christmas Eve Flower. 

We know them as the stunningly brilliant red and green potted plants sold everywhere at Christmas time. They seem to have surpassed Holly for identifying the classic Christmas colors as red and green. Today Christmas decorating is incomplete without a Poinsettia somewhere. Sometimes, nearly everywhere.

It may come as a surprise to know that the Poinsettia is not a flowering houseplant, but a shrub that reaches proportions large enough to qualify it as a small tree. While living in Africa one Easter we noticed a rather scrawny looking tree with red flowers on the top. We stood under it for a photo. That’s when we realized it was a Poinsettia! Wrong size, wrong time of the year, but Poinsettia nonetheless.

Professional growers have got it down to an art. The shrubs are now potted plants of perfect sizes for a table display, ranging from small to impressively large. And they are all at the height of their blooming just in time for Christmas.

The original colors are bright red flowers with dark green leaves. Today plant breeders have introduced new colors–pink, salmon, orange, yellow, white, even variegated ones. Each year there seems to be a new variety. 

My preference is still for the red ones. There is some interesting visual stuff going on with them. Artists know that one way to enhance a color is by surrounding it with its compliment. Red and green are complimentary colors. To further enhance the color the artists will reduce the chroma of the compliment so it is not a brilliant color. The effect will be even greater if the compliment is not just neutralized a bit, but darker in tone than the first color. Red Poinsettias do all three and the effect can be electric.

Poinsettia 01b

The bright flowers of Poinsettias are not really flowers, they are leaves. The upper, colored leaves are called bracts. The little yellow spots in the center of the big red “flower” is really the flower. 

According to Mayo Clinic, Poinsettias are not, contrary to popular belief,  poisonous. Contact with the sap may cause itching, and people with an allergy to latex need to exercise caution, since Poinsettias and latex share several proteins. 

No one I know has been able to keep a poinsettia for long after Christmas except my friend Sylvia. She is the one with the greenest thumbs. People buy Poinsettias for our church Christmas floral display. After Christmas they can take their flowers home. There are always some extras left. We give them away before they start dropping leaves, which they all do. Sylvia took a small one home and kept it through the entire winter. Not one leaf fell, not one bract was lost, not one flower. We were jealous. Ours had all turned to sticks. We asked her secret. “Lots of sun and not too much water,” she said. That never worked for us. But by Easter Sylvia herself grew suspicious. Upon closer examination, Sylvia realized that for four months she had been watering and sunning a silk Poinsettia. 

Unless you are a fanatic and have a green house with light shutters–Poinsettias need darkness for the bracts to turn color–you probably keep your Poinsettia through the holidays and call it successful.  But if you are interested in growing your own spectacular Poinsettias, consider Amaranthus. They are called “Summer Poinsettias.” It’s a common garden plant and you can readily get seeds from Burpee and others.

Summer Poinsettia 05

They can grow large and easily become the most impressive plant in your garden. Even spectacular. They come in a range of colors. No two plants are ever quite the same. You never know exactly what you’ll get. Here are some samples:

Summer Poinsettia 04

Sumer Poinsettia 01

Summer Poinsettia 06

I have never seen them for sale as seedlings or spring starters, although there may be some. The only way I can get them is to start them from seeds myself.

If you are a gardener, you will be getting a pile of seed catalogs in the mail shortly after the holidays. Try some Amaranthus. Start the seeds early. Get some fluorescent shop lights and try the peat pot seed starter kits. They work. It’s worth the effort for these “Summer Poinsettias.”

Lots of sun, and not too much water.

Good luck!

And Merry Christmas!

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After many years I am still a beginner, not a master gardener, nor a landscape architect, nor any other qualified expert. I simply love plants—all plants, from the Redwoods in the California fog to the moss in the cracks of my stoop. That makes for a big garden! I like to watch plants. They are such super-slow motion creatures. That gives us time. These pages are some of my watchings. 

Nikolas Majchrzak


(Sequoia Sempervirens – California Redwood)

01 39 Reds & Blue 1

My wife likes tall Christmas trees. We have an eight foot ceiling. She always picks out a nine foot tree. While living in Wisconsin we always went to a Christmas tree farm to cut our own. It didn’t matter that they gave us a long stick with the feet marked off. We came home with a nine foot tree. Sometimes taller.

One year in church we had a fifteen foot Christmas tree. It was a small church and a big tree. It covered the hymn board and part of the pulpit. The pastor preached from high in the branches.

We are impressed with tall evergreens. The White Pines of Wisconsin grow, like King Saul, head and shoulders above their peers. While still only teenagers they stick up high over the leafy deciduous forest like sentinels. That’s bad for them because the wind blowing over the canopy of the forest hits the emergent pines and breaks off the top branches. Because of this regular pruning they never grow higher than the deciduous forest. We have never seen a mature, full-sized White Pine. We wish we had been able to see the virgin White Pine climax forests of the North. Growing together they created their own mini-climate in which the winds blew over the pine canopy, so they were not broken off but kept growing, the highest up to 230 feet. That competes with some of the Redwoods.  Alas, they are all gone. No one living has seen such White Pine giants.

When we had a chance to see California we were thrilled, and planned a day in an un-logged Redwood forest.

It’s surprising how close to San Francisco the Redwoods are. Muir Woods, one of the Redwood preserves, is only 11 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. 

It was raining hard at the bridge. Half  way to Muir Woods we stopped for breakfast. We sat at a window watching the rain. It finally turned to drizzle and we left for the Woods, not about to let a little atmosphere detract us from one of the big reasons we came to California.
It was the perfect day for being there–rainy, drizzly, foggy, which is what the trees like, and so we liked it too. The gray fog and giant trees made it an enchanted place. We wandered the paths with a sense of awe, smallness, and wonder, breathing air with some of the oldest living things on earth. 
The Visitor Center sold rain ponchos and umbrellas. The umbrellas made for nice splashes of color in the gloomy “forest primeval.” 
Some Redwoods reach nearly 400 feet. There is no adequate way to show how high these tallest of all living creatures are. Not even a “bookmark” format captures it.
01 40 Reds & Blue 2
Walking the paths among these giants was truly mystical.
01 42 Rain Trails 2b
Muir Woods has never been logged and remains in its natural condition. As Solomon says, “Where a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where it falls, there it will lie.”
01 44 Forest Primeval 2
Redwoods can flourish only in coastal California’s fog belt, a thin strip of Pacific coast from southern Oregon to the Big Sur.
01 45 In Coastal Fog
Frequent fog supplies critical moisture in the dry summers.Condensing on needles and leaves, fog drips to the forest floor and replenishes their water supply. The cool ocean current creates the coastal fog that necessitated the orange color of the Golden Gate Bridge, and also keeps these plant treasures alive.
There are two kinds of giant evergreen trees in California. They are usually called by their common names, Redwoods and Giant Sequoias. Redwoods are also called California Redwoods and Coastal Redwoods.The official Latin names is  Sequoia sempervirens (Ever-living Sequoia), and the Giant Sequoia is Sequoia-dendrum gigantium (Giant Sequoia Tree).
Redwoods are the tallest living things, Sequoias the most massive. Both are nothing less than awe-inspiring. Some think these, along with the Bristlecone Pines, started growing not long after Noah’s Flood.
Here’s something from the Muir Woods brochure:
01 46 Redwood & Sequoia
01 46 Redwood Size 1
Redwoods can reproduce in a number of ways. Seeds, of course. There is only about a 15% viability rate. Botanists think it may discourage birds who forage for seeds but give up when having to sort through so much chaff.  
Redwoods can also reproduce from the bark of a fallen tree. That explains why some are growing in a straight line. 
Others will sprout from around the stump of a fallen tree. That explains why some grow in large “rings.” 
There is yet one more way, through burls. A burl is a woody ball-like mass that commonly appears on a redwood tree below the soil line, although when above the ground, it’s usually within 9 feet of the soil. Burls are capable of sprouting into new trees when detached from the parent tree. It seems burls are chocked full of stem cells and sprout rapidly.
Before we left for California, our grandchildren asked us to bring back a souvenir. We jokingly said we’d bring them back a Redwood tree. We all laughed, but I secretly thought there might be packets of seeds for sale in the gift store. Sure enough there were, but better than seeds, there were seedlings safely ensconced in plastic mailing tubes. Just right for carry-on luggage. The shop had both Redwoods and Sequoias. We got one of each for the kids.
The gift store was also selling burl slices–small blocks of wood that looked like well-done steaks. In a matter of only months we began to have our own Redwood forest.
01 47 Burl 2b
Maybe when they are nine feet tall we can start stringing lights.
Merry Christmas!
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After many years I am still a beginner, not a master gardener, nor a landscape architect, nor any other qualified expert. I simply love plants—all plants, from the Redwoods in the California fog to the moss in the cracks of my stoop. That makes for a big garden! I like to watch plants. They are such super-slow motion creatures. That gives us time. These pages are some of my watchings. 

Nikolas Majchrzak


(Lysimachia nummularia – Creeping Jenny)


“Grow your success” is not a catch phrase from the latest “Get Rich Overnight From Real Estate Investment” infomercial. No. By growing your success I simply mean grow the plants that are a success for you. 

Some plants seem to do well for you and, admit it, some don’t. Some you may never grow, no matter how many times your gardening neighbor says, “This is an easy one.”  It just may not be easy at your house. Some plants that thrived in your old house may not grow at all in your new house.  

You can try to figure out all the vagaries of why.  There are a lot of factors. Light seems the biggest consideration, and one you usually cannot change. How intense is the light? How long does it last? Is it morning light, or all day light, or afternoon light?  How much shade is covering your flowers? Sunny prairie plants won’t do well in a dark forest. Many Hostas get burned if there is too much sun. What kind of shade do you have, deep and dark, or filtered? How long, all day without a ray of actual sunlight, or is it filtered shade for part of the day? Or does the sunlight bounce off of your neighbor’s white house and brighten your shade?  You can keep a notebook if you like that kind of thing. You can make a shade map for different times of the day and of the year.

But the easiest thing is the most obvious–just watch your plants.

Some thrive, some languish. That tells you a great deal about how they like your place. Rejoice in the thrivers without needing to know every detail of why they are happy with you. Grow your successes.  Grow lots of them. You’ll have enough to give to your neighbor.

Watering is another consideration. In mid-summer nearly all your garden plants will need some watering. The dryer the season and the hotter it gets means lots of watering. That is especially true for container plants. They have only your pot, and when that goes dry, there is no fail-safe.

My giant Elephant Ear was a traffic-stopper in early summer. By late summer, if I missed one watering, it would completely curl over the edges of the pot and put its giant leaves flat on the ground, hoping to suck up some moisture through the gravel.  It looked like some kind of huge, green insect with big feet sitting in my flower-pot. 

Keep in mind also that watering has a human factor. How much time do you have and want to spend watering your plants?  It can become a job. You can spell it all out and even make a chart and a calendar, but what’s the reality of your life. Are you ready to spend an hour a day? Ten minutes a day? Ten minutes every three days? 

Gardens are nice, spouse and kids are more important, and work is more pressing. If you haven’t ever, try a small garden and see what amount of time you are able to put into it. Get a couple of containers. Make them, find them, improvise, old pails, plastic buckets, cast off containers. The oldest often have the most character. If necessary, buy some. The fiberglass ones are light, reasonably cheap, and can be dramatic. See what grows well with your light and your watering. Take note. Then get more of the successes for next year.

One of my own successes is Lysimachia. Some call it “Creeping Jenny.” Some call it a weed. I love it. It’s a great “spiller” for your containers. From a hanging planter the stems will dangle down far below the edge of the pot. They often look like strings of Chartreuse pearls.  Placed with purple they double the impact of both.

Creeping Jenny, Wandering Jew, and two Ivies

The Lysimachia just seems to like it where I am. So I grow my success. I always have some of it overflowing pots and planters somewhere during the summer.

My daughter-in-law loves flowers but was an utter disaster at growing anything. Her lovely and expensive spring flowers were laying prone in the parched earth before they ever got to bloom once. 

Then my son built her window boxes. He put them where the family looks out every day while having breakfast. Now they all could actually see the flowers growing and blooming. They could see when they needed watering. They could see the humming birds coming. They could see the Carolina Wren build its domed nest in one of the flower boxes. Even the toddler in the family would go to the window and with a big smile look at the eye-level garden with the baby birds.

That led to containers on the deck and some hanging baskets. In a few years it was quite clear what grew and flourished in their space. Today their deck is a true showcase of blossoming colors.

My daughter-in-law is one of those who has very little time to spare for watering plants. When I asked her what was the secret to her amazing deck garden, she rolled her eyes and said, “Never, ever water them!” 

Actually, she does water them, but not daily. She found plants that tolerate dry soil and fit their sunlight and shade perfectly.

Wax Begonias.

Those little white and pink and red ones sold for bedding plants.There are lots of choices for both flower color and leaf color. My daughter-in-law’s Begonias outdid all expectations and flourished with a flourish.

Wax Begonia

She has a variety of other plants, but the Begonias are the mainstay. They are my daughter-in-law’s grown success.

She gave me one the other day and said, “They’re easy.”




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After many years I am still a beginner, not a master gardener, nor a landscape architect, nor any other qualified expert. I simply love plants—all plants, from the Redwoods in the California fog to the moss in the cracks of my stoop. That makes for a big garden! I like to watch plants. They are such super-slow motion creatures. That gives us time. These pages are some of my watchings. 

Nikolas Majchrzak.



(Mushrooms – Fungi)

Fly Agaric (Amanita Muscaria – var. yellow cap)


Mushrooms are the aliens of the plant family. They are like Spock, half Earth, half Vulcan. They grow and live in the earth with plants, but they aren’t green like real plants. 

Mushrooms have no chlorophyll, which explains why they are white, not green. Lacking chlorophyll they don’t photosynthesize, and that explains why they don’t need light and can grow in the dark. Imagine. Some are weird enough to glow in the dark. 

Amanita Bisporigera


Mushrooms grow at an astonishing rate, emerging from the soil overnight at half their size or larger and reaching maturity in two days.

I once saw a fourteen inch toadstool, worthy of Miss Muffet’s tuffet, sprung up in only a few days. Another time I thought our kids left a soccer ball on the lawn in the rain. It turned out be a Giant Puffball.

Giant Puffball


Mushrooms are usually white, or have a base coat of white with pastel shades of  beige, brown, yellow, orange, red, lavender and more. Some colors overwhelm the white and can be intense, looking like something from Lewis Carroll.

 The Sky Blue Mushroom 


Most mushrooms have a stem and a cap. That makes them look like tiny umbrellas. Some caps are umbrellas with flat tops, some with pointed tops, some are half eggs, some have tops that are indented, and some have concave tops that hold rain water. 

Clitocybe Clavipes


Some mushrooms grow solitarily, some in family clusters, others in herds.

Clustered  Mycena Toadstools

Honey Mushrooms


Mushrooms are really the fruiting bodies of fungi that are growing underground. After a rainstorm you can see the fruit poking out of the soil. The fungi itself have been growing in the soil for some time. When it is fruiting season the things we call mushrooms appear. Think of them as apples, or peaches, or tomatoes. Once the underground fungus is mature it sends out its fruit. For some mushrooms that may be in spring, for others summer, and many in fall.


Classic Stereotype of All Mushrooms, the Fly Agaric (Amanita Muscaria)

Some colored mushrooms have white spots on them. It comes from a thin veil that enwraps the baby fruiting body. As the mushroom expands, the veil tears but cottony remnants of it remain attached to the cap in even spaces. Like dots drawn on a balloon, the spots expand farther away from each other as the mushroom cap grows larger.

In many mushrooms the torn veil will leave a ring around the base of the stalk. If there is a shreddy ring around the middle of the stalk, it is from another veil that covered the gills.


Fairy Ring

Fairy Ring mushrooms grow in a circle. It’s something of a mystery. It was once thought that the original mushrooms in the center of the circle used up the nutrients, and so the spores could only continue to spread outward, eventually forming the circle. Now that is doubted, but a really good explanation is not forthcoming. Of course, there are always the old legends. Some thought the ring was caused by a shooting star, or lightning, or a witch. A common European notion was that the ring of mushrooms shows where fairies, pixies, and elves sat in a circle to rest after a moonlight dance. 


Most mushrooms have a stalk, a cap, and gills. Some mushrooms have no stalks. The edge of the cap clings to the host, usually dead bark. They are called Shelf Mushrooms, and are often hard or leathery.

Shelf Mushrooms

Most mushrooms have gills on the underside of the cap. They are thinner than paper-thin dividers and help disperse the spores, tiny seed-like things which fall in a gentle rain of powder from the cap. 

Shelf Mushroom Gills

Mushroom roots, called mycelia–colonies of thread-like branches beneath the surface–can spread over large areas, in some cases acres. In Oregon, thousands of acres. That’s over 1,600 football fields. Such a connection of mycelia makes up the largest plant on the globe. I use the word “plant” advisedly. Scientists think mycelia may be keeping the forests alive by transferring needed nutrients between trees. Others think mycelia may contain the cure for cancer. 

To me the most baffling and remarkable thing about mushrooms is how they can “mushroom up” so fast. Overnight, it seems. There they are. Suddenly. Full-sized. How do they grow so fast that you can practically see them pushing up the dirt and pine needles?

Vulcans, you know, have green blood–copper based–and don’t operate physiologically on the same terms as we do. So too with these alien plants.  White instead of green, they don’t operate on the same terms, their astounding speedy growth being one of the greatest evidences of it.

All plants–dare I say all life on earth–grows by cellular division. But of course. That’s not only normal, it’s highly effective. But it’s slow.

Enter the ETs. The mushroom fruiting cells don’t divide. Rather, they are water balloons. With the proper amount of water they swell and fill up and expand to many times their size.  After a good, soaking rain, their balloons swell mightily and they simply “mushroom up” out of the ground.

Fungus Emergent

In the morning after the rain you see them there, apparently born full-bodied overnight. Such fast cell swelling makes green plants look like they are trapped in a super slo-mo time warp.


No doubt you already know that there is a dark side to these strange and wonderful creatures. Some mushrooms are poisonous. Actually, many are. Not just poisonous, lethal. Some don’t manifest symptoms until it is too late for a cure.

How many are poisonous? Which ones? That’s part of the problem. No one can be certain.

Mushrooms are often called Toadstools. At one time people used to think Toadstools referred to poisonous mushrooms, but no one can accurately identify which mushrooms are poisonous, much less list them all. So far over 14,000 species of mushrooms have been described.

With names like “Death Cap” and “Destroying Angel,” who would want to try their luck? Even mushroom experts occasionally die of mushroom poisoning. Some poisonous mushrooms look like edible ones. Some obviously poisonous ones, like Manita Muscaria, that red one with the white spots, can have their spots washed away in the rain and then look like an edible variety.


There are a few edible wild mushrooms that cannot be confused with anything poisonous. The best and easiest to identify are Morels. They always grow in spring and look like nothing else, except the poisonous False Morel. But that only grows in fall.


The Giant Puffball is edible, but might be mistaken for a look-alike, the poisonous Earthball.

Rather than run the terrible risk of eating a deadly poison, there are lots of safe, time-tested, edible mushroom available in the food stores.  Portobello, Shitake, Oyster, and the common White Buttons are readily available, to name a few.

Pizza Hut Supreme


I am a visual person. My interest in mushrooms is purely visual. I don’t want to eat them. Not even store-bought buttons on Thanksgiving. They taste like rubber to me. Although some in my family and millions around the world love mushrooms, I refuse to eat anything I can grow under my bed.

I see mushrooms as things to draw, to paint, to photograph, or to carve.

Watercolor Mushrooms


Purple Mushrooms Carved from Wood


Final reminder and best advice about these alien beings: Don’t eat any wild mushrooms except Morels in spring.

“Live long and prosper.”




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