treasure hunting in the garden, with ken druse

KEN DRUSE AND I are putting a new spin on weeding by giving it a new name: treasure hunting. Maybe the incessant, relentless nature of all those naughty things that keep popping up around the garden beds will be softened if we focus instead on the fact that we might just come upon some real goodies as we seek to rogue out the bad.

Discovering treasure (like that fernleaf full-moon maple seedling at Ken’s, above) while we ferret out the trash—the treasure being the self-sowns and other desirable volunteers the garden wants to give us—is our topic today.

My “guest,” Ken Druse, is not a guest, exactly, but a regular on the show, a longtime friend and the author of an astonishing 20 gorgeous books about gardening [affiliate link]. I’m so glad he’s here at this moment—when I am frankly having a bad case of garden overwhelm—to just commiserate and talk about what he’s finding out there in his own garden as he makes his rounds.

Plus: Enter to win a copy of Ken’s “Making More Plants,” a book about propagation.

Read along as you listen to the May 24, 2021 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

treasure hunting in the garden, with ken druse



Ken: Hi, Margaret. I think overwhelm is the right word. Does this happen every year? It seems to me that it happens every year.

Margaret: It does, it does. And yeah, and there’s always some extra thing. Whether it’s one year the weather is even crazier than another and that makes the overwhelm, the idea of overwhelm worse.

Ken: Every year the weather is crazier. [Laughter.]

Margaret: I know, I know. I know.

Ken: It’s 90, it’s 30, it’s snowing. It’s raining. It’s always too late. It’s always too early. We have to clean up all the beds, because we liked to leave the plants for the birds and the animals, so we do have to do that crazy cleanup thing. But yeah, it’s part of the deal, I guess, but that gives us the chance to look—and look even closer.

Margaret: Yeah. Which is what we’re going to talk about. And let’s give away a copy of “Making More Plants,” your propagation book that’s so popular? Even though I know we’re not propagating, officially, in this proposed adventure that we’re going to go on virtually today together, but maybe that’s a good one to give away, “Making More Plants.” That’s a really great book.

Ken: Thank you.

Margaret: O.K. I’m not sure which way to turn as we were just saying—this sort of overwhelm thing, and the temperature is changing, and it rains every day and it doesn’t rain at all, and oh my goodness.

I’m doing lots of lawn repair and I’m terrible at it, as I’ve told you before, because the birds won’t cooperate. Either the sparrows eat all the seeds, or then after I water each time the new seeds, the robins dig it up to find the worms, because they love nice moist soil when the worms are coming to the surface. [Laughter.] I give up.

And I took my houseplants outside. I don’t know about you, what’s going on there?

Ken: Well, you’ve tried double-seeding, you’ve tried straw, I imagine. You haven’t tried netting because it’s so big an area. But I was thinking, just thinking this morning, have you tried used cat litter?

Margaret: No, because I don’t have any cats.

Ken: Well, you have friends with cats, maybe. But you know the clay litter that just melts. And I’m wondering, I wonder if used cat litter sprinkled around might deter the birds. Just a thought. You’d have to do an experiment, but moving right along [laughter].

Margaret: Yeah. It kind of reminds me of those pellets of the newsprint, the recycled newsprint, that you’ve told me about in the past that are used for lawn mulch, so to speak, after you seed, that kind of then melt together in almost a “papier mache” coating on the surface. I don’t know.

Anyway, and did you take out your houseplants? [Margaret’s begonias beside some outdoor troughs of duckweed-covered water, below.]


Ken: Well, I’ve taken out the houseplants that I know can tolerate the cold, because it’s still going down into the 40s. I’m sure it is for you, too. And almost every year I have to schlep them back in, but it’s pretty late this year. I’ve taken out things like camellias and citrus, things that I know can go down to 20 really. But the begonias, things like that, I haven’t taken them out yet. Not till the end of the month.

Margaret: O.K. Oh my goodness so many chores, so little time.

Ken: I’ll tell you one thing about houseplants and going outside that has been an interesting discovery for me. I heard somewhere that you can use castile soap, like Dr. Bronner’s, that smelly stuff—and you buy a quart and it lasts you eight lifetimes. And so I thought, well, if that works, as long as it’s got castile soap in it, let me get the baby version, so if it’s in the air spraying, it won’t smell. It’s unscented and it also won’t burn my eyes.

I mixed one tablespoon of Baby Dr. Bronner’s in a quarter of water and sprayed it and it knocked the mealy bug back. And of course, two weeks later they’re back—but inside. But it really worked, and it’s completely safe. And I imagine that’s pretty much what’s in some of those soap products that you buy. But not dish soap because that can burn foliage, but that Dr. Bronner’s baby soap really worked.

Margaret: Oh, all right. Maybe if they need a little grooming, so to speak, before they go out or on their way out, that’s one thing to do.

Ken: Yeah. And you can spray them and then you can hose them down once they’re outside. Clean them up.

Margaret: Maybe onto the main event with the competition… I was thinking about this as I was out there weeding, AKA treasure hunting [laughter]. Now that we’ve renamed it. With the competition for real goodies at the garden center, just like last year, everything I go and I look and everything I want is gone or never got there in the first place. There might kind of be no better year to shop in your own garden, with a really alert eye obviously, and make the self-sowns, and the bits and bobs, of use. Have you sort of noticed any goodies popping up?

Ken: Well, the biennials always show up, as you know, and if you’re careful and you can get enough root, you can move them. Sometimes you’ll move them and they’ll take a year off, but they’re still alive and they come back. I know you’ve got more Angelica than you can count. You do move your Angelica gigas, don’t you?

Margaret: Yes. And one of the things about, like you’re saying that biennials and also self-sowing annuals, a lot of times and we laugh about it, why do they always seed it in the places we don’t want them like in the cracks, in the pavement stones.

Ken: They love that.

Margaret: Yeah. But sometimes it’s hard to get them out of there without sort of shocking them, because they’re really wedged into a teeny little space. They’re easier to move in a more open spot. But yeah, I do. I move Angelica a lot. Among sort of annual things, nicotianas and opium poppies and so forth. But yeah, I move them at various sizes. [Above, poppy seedlings sprout above tiny, flattened Nicotiana babies.]

The bigger they are, the more soil I want to have around their roots. I want to dig up a clod of moist soil with them. When they’re little-little, I don’t care. It’s almost like taking a seedling out and potting it on.

Ken: But sometimes when I’m weeding and being careful, I’ll come across something that’s surprising. And it’s not something expected like a biennial seed at all. It might be… It’s very often a tree seedling. And sometimes it’s a rare and unusual tree seedling.

And I was weeding in a little area just this week and there the tiniest Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’ was growing. And I think it’s maybe an inch and a half tall, but it has its true leaves and they are exactly like its parent, which is right above it. So I’m going to carefully lift that and pot it up, and I will have a tree that’s kind of precious, actually.

Margaret: Are you going to translate for us what that is? Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’?

Ken: Well, it’s a maple, a Japanese maple and it’s called ‘Aconitifolium’ because the leaves are very finely divided, like an Aconitum, like a monk’s hood. Very palmate and feathery.

And that tree—I’m going to say this: I think it has the best fall color of really any, I’ll say any woody plant [above]. Any woody plant in the garden. It’s spectacular. The colors all change. There’s green, yellow, orange, red at the same time. And the red sort of is a blood red that drips into the green. They’re just beautiful. I’ll grow that on for eight years and then it’ll be a lovely gift for someone.

Margaret: And I lost my favorite Asian maple. It wasn’t Japanese, it was a Korean-ish species, Acer pseudosieboldianum. And I had a big tree right by when you first came into the garden and I loved it, I loved it, I loved it. Fabulous full color. And then one year it just croaked. It wasn’t declining. It didn’t miss a beat the season before and it never woke up. It was probably one of these fungal diseases in the soil or something that who knows what.

Anyway, a year later while weeding—what we’re talking about, while treasure hunting; sorry, I’m not going to use the W word anymore—while treasure hunting, I found just what you’re saying. I found this tiny little thing with a true leaf that resembled that lost beautiful Asian maple, Japanese-style maple.

And I potted it up and now I have it in a big pot. It has grown, it’s a few feet tall now. This is, I don’t remember how many years ago, but so I’ve been using it as a beautiful potted thing. Obviously when it’s an inch tall, it doesn’t look like much, but I’ve been potting it on gradually. And I think this year it’s going to get a place in the ground. That was fun. And yet if I had been hurriedly weeding, uh-oh, I used the word again. —If I’d been hurriedly treasure hunting, I would have just pulled it out with whatever else.

Ken: Or mowed it.

Margaret: Right, right. If it was into the grass.

Ken: Right. Well, we were talking about this, and I’ve been looking harder and harder at some things like that. Well, since I saw that Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’… I don’t know, it’s not called full-moon maple, but it has a name like that [update: fernleaf full-moon maple]. I saw that there was a primrose growing at the base of an oak tree. And usually they like a lot of moisture, but there it was and I don’t know how it got there.

Margaret: Wow.

Ken: But that’s another precious thing. And I didn’t want to move it so I just put stakes around it to alert myself and keep the dogs off it just so I could see what would happen. But there are those little treasures every now and again.

Margaret: And they’re in the funniest places.

Ken: That’s true.

Margaret: And you don’t see them at the first pass. And this is another reason that… You know, I always want help with weeding. There’s always more weeding than there is time. But how do you explain to somebody who doesn’t have the eye that’s looked a million times at these plants in all their stages of life, the wanted and the unwanted plants? How do you say, “Well, now anything that looks like this is, get rid of this, whereas this,” which doesn’t maybe look that different when it’s tiny [laughter], “keep this.” Do you know what I mean? It’s you have to train your eye don’t you?

Ken: This is the perennial question: to find someone who knows what a weed is. In the past, when I’ve had people try to help, kids usually, who don’t know anything, I’ll make a little living catalog. I’ll pick four things and lay them out and say, “If it looks like any of these, out. Out it goes only.” I don’t know how, I think it just takes years of knowing. And also a certain kind of common sense. There’s a feel for it, a feel for a plant that’s different, or could be interesting or precious, or there isn’t 25 of. It is kind of common sense, and looking.

Margaret: Yeah. And I guess it’s like learning to recognize anything. An entomologist who can tell, sees insects and knows exactly what they are. We’ve been around a lot of weeds and also around a lot of different generations over many years of the plants we desire to grow, so we’ve come to recognize. We have those images fixed in our brain.

Ken: But don’t you always, every single year come across something you think: Is that a plant?

Margaret: [Laughter.] Of course.

Ken: Or is that a weed? I need help. There’s only one of them. And then maybe you have to wait for it to bloom. And I know you’ve got lots of books so you can look up what some leaves might look like, but there’s always at least one plant; Is that a plant? There’s that.

And then on the whole other side, there’s the plants 30 years ago, 30 years ago, 25 years ago I remember paying $30 for hellebores. They were the hottest thing and they were expensive, if you could find them, in a quart pot for really $25 to $30, which was a whole lot of money then, even more than it is now. And now what’s happened?

Margaret: Well [laughter], they have babies, don’t they?

Ken: Are you mowing them yet?

Margaret: No, they’re not in the lawn, but each mama plant has tons of babies, little seedlings around herself each year.

Ken: It’s too bad, 30 years ago you could be a millionaire. But not anymore.

Margaret: No. What do you do? O.K., so there you are and you’re cleaning up around the hellebores [below, at Margaret’s] and looking for weeds. Do you get rid of all the seedlings? A plant could have 50 or more around it.

Ken: Well, there’s one born every minute. I usually pass them along to somebody who wants them. Maybe somebody who’s got a city garden that they can’t really take over, and everybody wants them or lots of people want them. I give most of them away. Some of them, I just don’t pay attention to and frankly, some of them are mowed, because some of mine are in under the leaves, but laying over the edge of the bed, into the grass and I just mow them.

Margaret: I see.

Ken: But I don’t prick them out one by one. Well, not very often, anyway, but I certainly don’t need more. What?

Margaret: No, it’s so hard to throw things away. That’s part of the problem. That’s part of the tension in this exercise we’re talking about, in this treasure hunting. Because even if you find maybe not that onesie of that Acer, of that Japanese maple, that precious thing, but you might find a 100 hellebore seedlings when you’re cutting back the old leaves of mama plant. And what you going to do with 100 more?

Sometimes the best thing to do is just take your fist and grab them all, because they tend to be in a little colony, and pull them up and throw them in the compost, right? And that’s the end of that, like weeding. You’re weeding them. And then other times, it’s really hard to do that.

And so this year I said to my flower-farmer friends at Tiny Hearts Farm down in Copake, New York, just across the road from me sort of, I said, “You guys, you’re doing lots and lots of earlier flowers for your flower shop and your CSA and your arrangements,” and stuff like that, that they do for people. And I said, “Why don’t you add hellebores?” Even before the tulips come or the ranunculus come and the anemones come.

And so we had a big dig while the soil was really moist and it was still cool. We had a big dig, and they put some right into the ground, the bigger plants. And they put some in seedling flats in the greenhouse to grow on a while before transplanting. But they made a whole hellebore nursery for future cut-flower hellebores [laughter].

Ken: Oh, you’re reminding me of something. There’s a greenhouse near here for cut flowers that’s over 100 years old, and their biggest crop lately that they grow for the New York City flower market are hellebores. And we’ve been talking about Lenten roses or Helleborus x hybridum, those Oriental. If you ever cut those in flower, the flowers wilt almost right away. And so I didn’t know how they did it. They cut them in fruit after the petals fall and the things that look like petals start turning green. They stay; they don’t wilt. They cut those, and they sell them to the flower market and it’s become one of their most successful crops. They have acres of them.

Margaret: Oh, interesting. Yeah. I think you can singe them also—singe the ends of the stems and I think it helps them to stand up even when they’re not that far gone. [Update: What works is searing (not singing) the stem ends in boiling water for 20 seconds, then putting them into cold water and storing cold and dark for at least an hour before arranging them, says expert Sarah Raven].

Ken: Oh, but not when they’re fresh, because I think I’ve tried that. When they’re super-fresh they just wilt, the flowers.

Margaret: What else are you finding out there? Any other goodies? Didn’t you tell me that your redbud has been seeding around or doing something?

Ken: I have redbud trees, always in the wrong place it seems to me. But one of the redbuds that came up this year has kind of golden foliage [above, a seedling among the garden tangle at Ken’s] so I’m going to keep my eye on that.

Margaret: Wow.

Ken: Every now and again, something comes up that looks a little different or is variegated and you think, oh boy, I’m going to be rich—which is not the case. And sometimes it’s a virus, but this one has gold leaves. I’m going to watch that and it is in the wrong place. I get Poncirus trifoliata, or Citrus, the trifoliate orange [below]. I get a little seedlings from the fruits and I get maybe three or four year. And they’re always welcome as gifts because they grow so fast. They’re 6 inches tall in one year. They actually make O.K. presents.

And I’ve been getting, now you know the European little-leaf linden that’s used as a street tree all over New York and smells very nice. Well, we have a native one, an American one that grows across the river from me, and there I’ve seen a couple of seedlings of that. And that’s a very uncommon tree with beautiful flowers that are amazingly fragrant and big leaves, so I’ve marked them with a little bit of green ribbon just to keep my eye on them.

Margaret: Some of the things that… And that’s I do that, too; I put a stake or something in. I’ll put a little piece of bamboo or whatever, where something is that I want to remember it is for future reference or for moving in the future. But some things, I was just thinking about the ostrich ferns or other things that are sort of, they’re rampant, they’re great spreaders and in certain areas you really want them. It’s a great plant on its own in a mass, but what do you do with all the extras? And obviously you can give them to friends.

But someone told me, someone at the New York Botanical Garden, Mobee Weinstein, the foreman of gardeners at the botanical garden—she told me the other day, she’s a fern expert, and she said, “Oh Margaret,” she said, “they’re so fabulous. Pot it up in big pots.”

And they’re so hardy to Zone 3 or something, that in a big container, she did them in a big whiskey barrel-sized container. They are perennial above ground like that, if it’s a weatherproof pot. It’s this gorgeous thing. And it’s no care and it’s beautiful at every stage. It even has those fertile fronds later.

Ken: Yeah, I can picture it. It’s like having a palm in a Victorian urn or something.

Margaret: Yes. Exactly, exactly. So sometimes you could even—getting back to like where I said, I went to the garden center to find things for, in my case it was for some annuals—well, there weren’t the things that I wanted so you know what I’m doing? I may be doing ostrich fern pots this year. That may be my theme song.

Ken: Oh, that’s great. That’s great.

Margaret: You can do lots of things.

Ken: And goodness knows you have enough of them.

Margaret: Yes. But you can do a lot of things with the treasures. Pot them up. The tiny little hellebores, as I said, you could put them in cell packs to grow a little longer. Or in small pots to grow a little longer before you either give them away or transplant them. Or you could transplant them right away or a larger thing like the ostrich fern or my young Japanese or Korean maple, you might pot it up and use it right away as a little ornamental.

Ken: Well, when you were having open days, you could have a hellebore bonus plant for visiting.

Margaret: I used to do that actually. Did you know that?

Ken: [Laughter.] No, I didn’t.

Margaret: Yeah, I used to put the little seedlings in flats and just let people take six packs home with them. Yeah. Yeah, true.

Ken: Very nice.

Margaret: Yeah. Any other chores that you’re doing right now? Are you cutting anything back? Do you do that sort of cutback thing with perennials?

Ken: Sure. Sure. I start with the phlox, because the phlox grows so fast, and I cut most of the phlox back in half. And then they end up being plants that are about two-thirds as tall as normal.

Margaret: Oh my goodness. What you’re saying with the tall summertime-blooming phlox, your Phlox paniculata, you’re cutting them back now and that’s making them bloom maybe a little teeny bit later, but bushier and not quite as tall.

Ken: That’s exactly it.

Margaret: And you do it with a lot of… It can be done with asters and things that get too leggy, even eupatoriums, I think, or whatever the Joe-Pyes and so forth are called now.

Ken: Things that have stems that are going to bloom at the top later. Well, with chrysanthemums it’s a tradition that you pinch them, which is kind of different than chopping them, because the phlox I’ll cut in half once. But the chrysanthemums I’ll just pinch them, and then they get bushier and bushier and traditionally July 4th, you stop pinching them because then they form buds when the hours of daylight gets shorter. You don’t want to mess with them. [Our past conversation on pinching or cutting back everything, from certain conifers to heleniums.]

Margaret: O.K. But do not stop weeding or treasure hunting on July 4th. [Laughter.]

Ken: We don’t have time to talk about this, but I want to know what killed that tree in your garden because I want to know what killed my tree.

Margaret: Yeah. The underground mysteries. The underground mysteries.

Ken: Someday we’ll have to do a little forensics.

Margaret: O.K. All right, Ken. Well, I’ll talk to you soon again. I hope and get out there and do some treasure hunting, O.K.?

Ken: Right now.

enter to win ken’s ‘making more plants’

I’LL BUY A COPY of “Making More Plants: The Science, Art, and Joy of Propagation” by Ken Druse for one lucky reader.  All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page:

Found any treasure among the trash in your garden so far this spring, or anytime in the past?

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, June 1, 2021. Good luck to all.

(Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 12th year in March 2021. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the May 24, 2021 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. Lora T. says:

    A friend gave me some sensitive fern a couple of years ago, and I tucked it into my shade garden, where it promptly shriveled up and disappeared. This spring I was treasure hunting in the shade garden, and voila! Little baby sensitive ferns!

  2. lynn says:

    I think I have to pay more attention as I have never seen a Hellebore seedling. I’ve only had them a short while but I will really start watching now. Thanks for these podcasts.

  3. Catherine W. says:

    I’ve found lots of hellebore babies too, as well as anemones, that I have been passing along to friends. But I haven’t found any nice surprises in “treasure hunting.” However, I bought a beautiful “Spotty Dotty” podophyllum, and took my time finding the perfect location for it. By the time I planted it, there was a little baby Dotty growing out of a drainage hole.

  4. Patricia Moore says:

    Stewartia japonica seedlings. WOW! I’ve let them grow and a few are now 6 – 13 feet, which I’ll give to friends or the local garden club sale.

  5. margaret greaney says:

    Yes, I find new plants of a rosa rugosa every year when plant hips fall to the ground and in another spot where a spruce tree was cut down and roots grounded up a spruce tree plant is growing.

  6. I really enjoyed this podcast. I now live in an apartment and have established a container garden, so I’m unlikely to find any surprises since leaving my garden. Thank you for the giveaway. :)

  7. Joan says:

    I have been treasure hunting Japanese maple seedlings — potting or relocating (marking with a pretty rock) just to see what happens.

  8. Krista Schmidt says:

    This spring my treasures have included pansy seedlings in the driveway, hellebore seedlings (for the first time! in my garden) and oak seedlings. In years past, my Allium ‘Millenium’ have blessed me with many seedlings.

  9. Linda Muhl says:

    I have loved finding treasures. I found 6 little JM (acers) under a tree. I have been babying them for a year. I do hope they all live and thrive~

  10. margaret says:

    AND THE WINNER IS: Ann Goetcheus. Thank you all for your enthusiasm about treasure hunting with me and Ken.

  11. Lynne Bernstein says:

    I stopped mowing and found native loosestrife and cardinal flowers coming up. must be an ancient seed bank.

  12. Gabriele says:

    I love your chats with Ken and I loved that you called weeding “treasure hunting” – it certainly changes your outlook from a chore to an adventure! Thank you for this fun episode!

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