Winter Gardening – Hardwood Cuttings


I love starting plants from cuttings.  Not only can you reproduce seedlings or heirloom plants that may not be commercially available, but you can grow dozens or hundreds of plants for free.  I started a couple hundred heuchera, rose, and caryopteris plants from semi-hardwood cuttings last year with a fairly high success rate (57% ± 24% across all varieties) even without rooting hormone.  However, since I don’t have a misting system to keep the cuttings damp while they root, I had to fall back on labor-intensive hand misting two or three times a day, and I lost two flats of heuchera cuttings to a heat wave.  Also, several species (boxwood, blueberries, mock orange, and magnolia) rooted very poorly for me, even though semi-hardwood propagation is recommended for these species.

I need several dozen boxwood plants to line the beds of my newly-expanded formal garden, and I’m not keen on paying $7-$20 per plant at my local garden center, so I decided to try some hardwood cuttings.  One to two year old growth was cut from a mature (12 year old) specimen of boxwood ‘green velvet’ in late December and allowed to warm up in the greenhouse until flexible.  Branches were pruned into 2″ – 5″ long segments, cutting at a sharp, clean angle to expose as much cambium as possible, and leaves were stripped from the bottom ~1″ of each cutting.  Cuttings were dropped into clean water (snow melt) as soon as they were made to keep the cut edge from drying out, and planted in well-moistened potting soil (Milaeger’s brand) in 72-cell flats within about 15 minutes of cutting.  I did not use rooting hormone or mist the cuttings – they were simply watered two or three times a week along with the rest of the greenhouse plants.  Cuttings were kept in partial sun (4-5 hours per day), at daytime temperatures between 60 ° and 70° F and night temperatures between 35° and 50° F.  At eight weeks, 75% (72/96) of the cuttings were well rooted.  Success!


This weekend, I started another 121 hardwood cuttings, a mix of blueberry, mock orange, arbor vitae, juniper, and star magnolia.  Hopefully, these succeed where semi-hardwood cuttings failed.

If you’re new to propagation from stem cuttings, I highly recommend  North Carolina State University’s or the Pacific Northwest Cooperative’s excellent websites for species-specific information and detailed propagation instructions.

Winter Gardening – Saving Heirloom Tomato Seeds


I had mixed results with the heirloom tomato varieties I grew last year.  Some, like Red Siberian and a nameless grape tomato from a neighbor, performed very well, with high yields throughout a long season.  Others performed terribly: Speckled Roman was overwhelmed with blossom end rot even with supplemental calcium and Tigerella and Green Zebra produced a scant handful of fruits.  So, in mid-January, I started twelve different varieties of tomatoes, two from saved seed and ten from various vendors.

When I saved the seeds, I didn’t bother with an elaborate fermentation process (see GardenWeb for a how-to on tomato seed fermentation).   I just squeezed the seeds directly from the tomatoes onto a sturdy, dye-free paper towel (Bounty brand), smeared them across the paper towel to break the seeds free from the jelly surrounding them, and allowed them to air-dry, gunk and all, at room temperature  for about two days.  I then folded up the seeds (now firmly stuck to the paper towel) and stored them double-bagged in Ziploc freezer bags in the refrigerator.  When it was time to plant the seeds, I tore off bits of the paper towel with the seed attached (to avoid damaging the seed) and planted the paper towel and seed together.

This is the first year I’ve kept track of seedling success rates (number of seeds that grow to cotyledon stage).  The sample size is small (two to four varieties per vendor, plus two saved varieties), but the results were striking:


At least under my greenhouse conditions, only a third or so of the seeds from commercial vendors grew into seedlings, while more than 90% of saved seeds were viable.  The sample size isn’t statistically significant, but I believe the trend: I’ll be saving more tomato seeds this year.

Winter Training Progress

The weather in southeastern Wisconsin has been appallingly cold the last few days – high temperatures in the teens, with wind chills well below zero.  Despite the lovely snow cover and crisp, clear winter light, I’ve had to abort my last two photography day trips: my camera froze up on an evening location scout for the upcoming Geminid meteor shower and I froze up trying to follow up on recent reports of a snowy owl influx into Wisconsin.  With less time spent on photography, I’ve spent more time in the workshop, building furniture and more complex boxes for inventory in spring and summer art shows.  I’ve also had more time to work on training my animals.

Zeke leaping through snow

At almost two years old, Zeke, my Shetland sheepdog, has mostly grown out of his puppy distractibility.  His basic commands (sit, down, stay, come, leave it, and a loose off-leash heel) have been solid for months, allowing me to focus on photography and not dog behavior when he joins me on photography trips.  Recently, we’ve mostly been working on more precise off-leash heeling and quick, consistent response to cues in the presence of dogs, people, and other distractions.  Here’s a sample of his progress:

I’ve also started him on agility jumps and weave poles; we may never pursue competition agility, but he loves the activity for its own sake.

I’ve also been working with my African grey parrot, Ari.  She knows dozens of behaviors, from husbandry needs like unrestrained claw clips and wing exams to speaking and whistling on command, recall (flying to me when called), and targeting to a finger or target stick.  However, response to cues is imperfect – she often offers an alternate behavior if she thinks my request is too much work.  Professional bird trainers typically keep their trainees about 5% to 10% under free-feeding weight to increase motivation in response to food, but I don’t think this is justified for a middle-aged pet.  Instead, I’ve been working on three behaviors (target, lift a foot, and wing flip) with short sessions and high value reinforcers (walnuts) to improve stimulus control.  We’re not there yet, but progress has been good:

Supplier Review –

I’ve ordered mixed veneer packages for marquetry (wood inlay) from several suppliers.  Most of them look something like this:

Grizzly (Sauers) veneer sample pack

Reasonably good quality, a few burls, exotics, and figures, but mostly plain sawn native hardwoods and Philippine mahogany, one sheet per figure/species.  At most suppliers, this type of mix retails for about $2 per square foot.

I just received my second order of marquetry veneer samples from  It looked like this: sample pack

Fewer species, but all premium woods, including highly figured eucalyptus burl and pecky yew, pricey species like Brazilian rosewood and royal ebony, and a variety of other nicely figured exotics.  There are multiple, sequenced sheets of each species to allow book matching on larger panels.  Some of the sheets are tiny (2″ – 3″ wide by 8″ long), but still useable for edging, banding, and small details, while most of the sheets were 6″ to 9″ wide by 10″ to 12″ long – large enough for just about any marquetry project.  My first marquetry veneer sample order from them was just as impressive.  The whole lot was only about $0.37 per square foot – 1/6 the price of competitive products for much higher quality. also offers sample packs of largish (roughly 7″ x 11″) sheets of domestic woods .  I have a more varied impression of this product – one order was heavy on cherry, walnut, oak, and mahogany, while a second order was heavy on perfectly lovely but less workable yellow pine and poplar.  However, as for the marquetry sample pack, the sheets were sequenced and the veneer was flat and without voids or flaws – still a good deal for their very reasonable price of $0.63 per square foot.

Late Fall in Wisconsin

Fall has almost ended here in Southeastern Wisconsin.  Maple color was spotty this year due to widespread anthracnose fungal infections, but the oaks, which are still clinging to the last of their fall color, were exceptional this year.

Root River in Autumn, Colonial Park, Racine, WI Pin oak fall color, Lulu Lake, East Troy, WI

Brown trout are running in Racine’s Root River, attracting human anglers from surrounding states, along with furred and feathered fishers.  Some of the gulls are overly optimistic about tackling these giant fish…

Wishful thinking - herring gull stares down a brown trout, Root River, Racine, WI  Ringbilled Gull Dive, Root River, Racine, WI

Most of the migratory birds have already passed through, but waterfowl are still gathering on every stretch of open water, and winter residents like ring billed and herring gulls, now in winter plumage, are beginning to mass up for winter.  The first few scaups and buffleheads are also showing up in the Racine harbor.

Three iconic Lake Michigan birds Mallard takeoff, Root River, Racine, WI

Much of the fall has been wet and blustery, but Zeke still thinks it’s wonderful weather for running through the leaves.

Zeke leaping through the leaves, Cliffside Park, Racine, WI

Sphinx Moths

Here in southeastern Wisconsin, it has been a banner year for sphinx moths.  Also known as hawk moths or hummingbird moths, these striking insects have been swarming hanging baskets, hummingbird feeders, and late wildflowers throughout the area.  The photographs, taken on Wind Point, WI, show white-lined sphinx moths (Hyles lineata), whose flexible use of host plants from grapes to primroses makes it the most common sphinx moth in North America.

White-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata), Wind Point, WI

Sphinx moths have a lot in common with the hummingbirds that share their nectar-sipping lifestyle.     These nimble and acrobatic fliers can hover in place or zip along at a speedy 20 mph – about as fast as an Olympic sprinter.  Energy from their sugar-rich diet of nectar, furry insulating scales and heat-generating muscle vibrations help sphinx moths maintain a bird-like body temperature of about 40º C, allowing them to remain active even in cold weather.  Like hummingbirds, sphinx moths are also valuable pollinators.

White-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) front view, Wind Point, WI

True to their family name – Macroglossinae or “big tongue” – sphinx moths’ nectar-harvesting proboscis can be longer than their body; more than a foot long in some tropical species.

White-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata), Wind Point, WI (1)


  • W Cranshaw.  “Hornworm and ‘Hummingbird’ Moths.”  University of Colorado-Extension Fact Sheet 5.517
  • B Heinrich.  “Metabolic Rate and Endothermy in Sphinx Moths.”  Journal of Comparative Physiology.  1973 82:195-203.
  • RD Stevenson et. al.  “Cage Size and Flight Speed of the Tobacco Hawkmoth.” The Journal of Experimental Biology 198, 1665–1672 (1995)
  • “Sphinx Moths.” Iowa State University: University Extension.  2002.  Fact sheet RG210.

Late Summer at Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve

This weekend, I had the opportunity to visit Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve in Ozaukee County.  The two hours I had available to visit would have been enough to hike all of the trails, but they definitely weren’t enough for a photography trip – I could easily have spent most of the day there pursuing insects, wildflowers, landscapes, and wildlife through my lens.  The trails were impeccably maintained, the other visitors friendly and polite, and, as a bonus, this preserve allows dogs, much to the delight of my four-legged birding buddy, Zeke.  The terrain was a mix of swamp, prairie, deciduous forest, and striking bluffs on the Lake Michigan shoreline, with the trails and boardwalks set right at the ecotones (habitat edges) to maximize wildlife observation.  The fall warbler migration is well underway, and many migrants were visible, including American redstarts, yellow-rumped, pine, and yellow warblers.  Red-winged blackbirds and starlings were beginning to flock up in large numbers, and numerous American goldfinches were hanging upside down from ripening prairie sunflower blooms.  This late in the season, the mosquitos are finally (mostly) gone, but other insects were abundant; I saw at least six species of bee and four species of butterfly, along with countless syrphid flies, dragonflies, and damselflies.  Well worth a second trip!

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