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Niki Jabour’s Veggie Garden Remix

Niki Jabour's Veggie Garden Remix

Niki Jabour’s Veggie Garden Remix

Every spring we gardeners stand in the sun as we breathe deep and fill our minds with plans for new projects, using new techniques and planting new plants.

This year my new project is a small straw bale bed for vegetables. However, I have been reading Niki Jabbour’s new book Veggie Garden Remix: 224 New Plants to Shake Up Your Garden and Add Variety, Flavor and Fun (Storey $19.95) and my ideas about what to plant are shifting. The new plants she talks about are not just new varieties of standard plants many of us usually grow. She is talking about increasing the biodiversity of our gardens with vegetables from around the world.

We talk about using native plants in our ornamental gardens, but in our vegetable gardens we usually don’t know which vegetables are native to North America. I know a few of the vegetables in our garden are native to South America including tomatoes, avocados, cashews, potatoes, sweet potatoes and squash.  How many more edible plants that were not native to North America are now common at our supermarkets? I suspect quite a few. Other new plants are appearing all the time as our world gets smaller and smaller, as people leave one continent to live on another and bring their taste for familiar foods with them.

Jabbour’s book opens with a story about a gourd she planted and planned to use as a Halloween decoration. When her Lebanese mother-in-law, Noha, saw it her eyes lit up. She recognized the funny looking gourd as cucuzza, a squash tasting much like summer squash. Eating that cucuzza the whole family realized there were many vegetables from around the world that could be grown in their garden and give their meals a bit of a remix.

Like snap beans she asks? Jabbour then offers up a number of less familiar edible beans like hyacinth beans, edamame, chick peas and yard long beans with full cultural information for growing. She also throws in what her family calls daylily beans, the closed buds of the daylily which can be simply fried or dipped in batter for a tempura “bean.”

She uses that process as she opens our eyes to celtuce, a non-heading lettuce that produces tender leaves in the spring and a crunchy stem in late summer. Jabbour offers a whole array of greens to spinach lovers. She begins with the fast growing and pretty magenta spreen, and goes on to peppers, sweet potato leaves, tatsoi from China and more.

Beauty Heart Radish AKA Watermelon Radish

Beauty Heart Radish AKA Watermelon Radish

There are bigger families of broccoli, cabbage, carrots, beets, turnips and radishes than you ever imagined. I first saw and ate Beauty Heart, a beautiful winter radish with a green exterior, then a white layer and a broad pink layer, in China. I kept insisting my translators were mistranslating when they called it a radish. I thought the fist sized radish must be a turnip. I was wrong. When I got back to the U.S. I started seeing this radish at farmer’s markets, where it was called watermelon radish. The Chinese usually pickle it and it is delicious. It only takes about 15 or 20 minutes to complete the pickling process, and is almost immediately ready to eat.

Jabbour gives us the opportunity to try out vegetables from other lands. The Asparagus pea, a plant native to Africa, was a tintillating idea. However, she said she “is not a fan of eating Asparagus peas. “The four sided winged pods do have a hint of asparagus as well as its own sharp flavor,” but what Jabbour likes is their low sprawling habit which can cover about one to two feet of horizontal space, and the brick red flowers that bloom before the pods appear. She says they can grow in Zone 5, but it is a good idea to start the seeds indoors and wait until it is dependably warm to plant outside.

Amaranth is a plant I have admired as a flower, and knew it was edible, but I could never imagine quite how. First Jabbour describes the different species that she recommends for greens, using the foliage, as the edible element. They can be cooked like spinach. The foliage is often colorful; Thomas Jefferson brought home seeds of the tricolor amaranth from Paris for his garden.

Amaranth is also a protein rich grain plant. It needs at least 100 frost free days to produce usable seed. The amaranth many of us think of as love-lies-bleeding (A. caudatus) can be used for a seed harvest. Harvest time arrives after the first frost and Jabbour gives information about harvesting, threshing, winnowing and cooking.

The book concludes with information about Vietnamese coriander (Persicaria odorata), which she describes as having a peppery-cilantro flavor, a good herb for the delicious Vietnamese noodle soup ‘Pho.’ It needs at least 6 hours of sun and prefers a moist soil. Clearly this is an herb I can grow successfully in my wet and damp garden. It is possible to order Vietnamese coriander plants from Richter’s Herbs. This is a great advantage if you like cilantro which goes to seed so quickly over the summer, Vietnamese coriander produces flavorful foliage all season.

There is a good index, and a list of seed companies that can give you entrée into a whole new world of vegetables.###

Between the Rows   April 14, 2018

Straw Bale Solutions and Red Lily Beetle Controls

Straw Bale Solutions

Straw Bale Solutions

The idea of using a straw bale as a planting medium attracted me a number of years ago.  I bought a two straw bales, gave them a good soaking, punched holes in the bales with my Japanese hori hori knife, put a cup or so of compost into the hole, and then put my tomato seedlings in the holes. I watered the bale and watched the tomatoes grow. They grew slowly, and produced a very few tomatoes.

I tried again, using hay bales instead of straw  bales, but was no more successful. Where was Joel Karsten when I needed him? Joel Karsten is the author of Straw Bale Solutions: Creative tips for growing vegetables in bales at home, in community gardens and around the world. Karsten begins with his own story of gardening with straw bales, and writing his first booklet simply titled Straw Bale Gardening: A complete guide to growing vegetables in bales without soil or weeds.

Now that I have read the book I see where I made my fatal mistake. I did not ‘condition’ my straw bales.

Karsten gives very specific directions with a schedule that begins soaking the straw to saturation on day 1 and sprinkling 3 cups of organic nitrogen on each bale. He explains that organic nitrogen can come in the form of organic blood meal. If you want to use non-organic nitrogen you can use ordinary lawn fertilizer (NPK 29-0-4) but be absolutely sure it does not contain pre-emergent weed killer or you are killing the whole system. When using lawn fertilizer, only a half cup per bale is needed. The Greenfield Farmers Coop sells straw bales from local farmers who use no herbicides.

I am not going to give you the whole schedule here but I can see that the key is providing just the right amount of water once the bale is truly saturated, and adding specific amounts of nutrients including phosphorous and potassium as well as the nitrogen. “High nitrogen fertilizer stimulates the bacteria and fungi that are latent in  the bales and causes them to accelerate the decomposition  process, magically transforming straw into compost in just a couple of weeks.”

You will not be planting in a straw bale, you will be planting in recently decomposed straw! Bales will last for two years.

Once the bales are fully saturated Karsten warns against overwatering which will wash away nutrients, and the use of cold water straight out of the hose which will chill  and kill the bacteria cooking away in the bale. It will take between two and three weeks to condition the bale. A compost thermometer is a good tool for checking the temperature inside the bale.

The rest of Straw Bale Solutions is given over to how straw bales make gardening and farming possible in difficult situations. Chapters include Conquering the Slopes of Switzerland, Flood Zone Gardens, Rocky Mountain and Rocky Soil, and Sandy Soil and Rampant Wildlife. I am counting on my straw bales to deter the bunnies in my neighborhood.


Those who read my column about lilies last week were quick to tell me that I left out a vital piece of information. I did not give any advice about the wicked scarlet lily beetle and possible ways to control it. It was easy for me to put such an unpleasant subject out of my mind. I was fortunate not to have lily beetles on my lilies in Heath. That may have been due to the colder climate, or to the fact that there were no other lilies anywhere nearby so that the beetle simply had not made its way to our area.

First the good news. Certain lilies are less susceptible to the lily beetle. The University of Maine has named Lilium henryi ‘Madame Butterfly’, Lilium speciosum ‘Uchida’, and Lilium ‘Black Beauty’ as the most resistant in their tests. It was just by chance that I did grow those lilies in Heath. Keep in mind that Asiatic lilies are MORE susceptible.

Scarlet lily beetles are a terrible scourge and will destroy our lilies. The lily leaf beetle dines on the foliage and lays its eggs underneath the leaf. It is possible to handpick the beetles and put them in a jar of soapy water. The difficulty is that the beetle can often sense movement and will respond by instantly letting go of the leaf, fall on the ground and lie on its back. It is very difficult to see on the ground.

You can also handpick the larvae which can be yellow, brown or orange, although you may not see much color because they hide themselves with excrement, a disgusting and slippery ‘fecal shield.’ It is best to wear nitrile glove s if you are going to squash them with your fingers. Make sure to keep using that jar of soapy water for squashed larvae. They are hard to kill. The larvae will feed for two to three weeks before going into the soil to pupate for two or three weeks when they will hatch and begin the process all over.

Beyond handpicking you can use neem oil every five days to kill the larvae. Spinosad is another pesticide that can work. Spinosad is sold as Monterey Garden Insect Spray, BULL’S-EYE™ and others. What is unavoidable is keeping after the beetles. The University of Massachusetts offers an excellent Lily Leaf Beetle Fact Sheet.

Addendum – It has been pointed out to me that Spinosad is deadly to honeybees. However, there is no point in spraying lily blossoms; the beetles are on  the lily stem and leaf undersides. Spinosad is effective (and it will not hurt bees after it has dried) so I think it is a good and safe pesticide. You will have to keep watching for lily beetles and keep treating the plant.  All pesticides should be used carefully

An addendum to this column as it appeared on April 7. 2018

Richard Wilbur – National Poetry Month

Morning Song: Poems edited by Susan Todd and Carol Purington

Morning Song: Poems for New Parents

Richard Wilbur (1921-2017) winner of Pulitzer Prizes for Things of This World (1956) and New and Collected Poems (1988),was named the second Poet Laureate of our country and won many awards and prizes. I knew Richard Wilbur had long lived in our corner of western Massachusetts, but I never expected to get a letter from him.  And for that I thank Carol Purington and Susan Todd who were longtime friends of his.

Carol and Susan were putting together Morning Song, an anthology of poems for new parents with section headings like Waiting, Newest Child, Green and Carefree, Lessons and more. Several of Wilbur’s poems were included in different sections. The poems chosen ranged from Sappho to contemporary poets like Wilbur. As I read the poems I can see the memories and hopes that we parents feel as we look in our children’s eyes as they grow.

One of Wilbur’s poems in Morning Song is The Writer.

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
from her shut door a commotion of typewriter keys
Like chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thoughts and its easy figure
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking.
And then she is at it again, with a bunched clamor
Of stokes, and again is silent.

——————-  and ends with

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

As the mother of three daughters (and two sons) I cannot think help thinking of the stronger wishes that arrive as they grow older. And older.

As for my letter from Wilbur, since I was now friends with his friends, I wrote and asked permission to use one poem that spoke of an experience we shared in my Commonweeder blog. He responded generously. You can read April 5, 1974 here.

Richard Wilbur is also known for his wit. I particularly enjoy the lyrics he wrote for Leonard Berstein’s operetta Candide, based on Voltaire’s 1758 novella that satirized the philosophies of the day. As the story comes to a close Candide and his love Cunegonde imagine a happy married life. Oh, Happy We

CANDIDE  –  Soon, when we feel we can afford it
We’ll build a modest little farm
CUNEGONDE  –  We’ll buy a yacht and live aboard it
Rolling in luxury and stylish charm
CANDIDE – Cows and chickens
CUNEGONDE – Social whirls
CANDIDE – Peas and cabbage
CUNEGONDE – Ropes of pearls
CANDIDE – Soon there’ll be little ones beside us;
We’ll have a sweet Westphalian home
CUNEGONDE – Somehow we’ll grow as rich as Midas;
We’ll live in Paris when we’re not in Rome


CUNEGONDE – We’ll round the world enjoying high life
All bubbly pink champagne and gold
CANDIDE – We’ll lead a rustic and a shy life
Feeding the pigs and sweetly growing old

CUNEGONDE – Breast of peacock
CANDIDE – Apple pie
CUNEGONDE – I love marriage

Oh, happy pair!
Oh, happy we!
It’s very rare
How we agree

Married life and children. Wilbur expressed the challenges and blessings of all.

True Lilies, Martagon Lilies and How to Plant

Lilium "Casa Blanca" lilies

Lilium “Casa Blanca”

Lilies. There are all kinds of lilies: Lily of the valley, daylilies, water lilies, and sword lilies, but these are all fakes. True lilies belong to the very large Lilium family which includes more than 100 species. That means there are many colors, sizes and forms to consider for your garden.

Right now the florists and supermarkets are offering potted Easter lilies, but these cannot be planted in our gardens because they are too tender. However, among those 100 species are many lilies that can be happy in our Massachusetts climate.

The North American Lily Society says that Asiatic lilies are about the easiest to care for and the earliest to bloom. These lilies are hybrids of several other lily families. They come in many colors and forms, with upright or nodding blossoms, and no fragrance which makes them easier to enjoy indoors in a bouquet. Many find the lily fragrance overwhelming.

Over the years I have only grown a few lilies. The most spectacular lily I grew was the fragrant “Casa Blanca” with its large, brilliant white, slightly reflexed petals. This Oriental lily is a real show stopper.

Henryi lilies in the Heath garden

Henryi lilies in the Heath Garden

The Henryi lily is in a family by itself. In my Heath garden I grew sturdy white and gold Henryi lilies which were about five feet tall. The golden orange L. henryi had speckled reflexed petals, and White Henryi had a golden heart with a bouquet of blossoms on its stem. Needless to say they were chosen because my husband’s name is Henry, but there was another earlier Henry, Augustine Henry was a plant hunter who discovered this lily in Hubei province in China in 1888.

Lilium "Black Bearty"

Lilium “Black Beauty”

Right at the edge of our Heath patio I planted two tall lilies that resembled each other. I don’t think any of my photos show much difference between the two. “Black Beauty” an Orienpet hybrid, and Lilium speciosum rubrum both bloomed in speckled shades of wine-red with touches of white, and recurved petals. Both bloomed in August but “Black Beauty” had a light fragrance, while L. speciosum rubrum had a lovely rich fragrance. “Black Beauty” was the first Orienpet hybrid created by Leslie Woodriff who also created the “Stargazer” lilies.

I was unaware of scale so I was surprised when the flowers of the Martagon lilies I planted were very small. The plant grew to about four feet, but the delicate blossoms were very small with the graceful recurved petals thus giving it the name turk’s cap lily. Plant catalog photos do not necessarily give you complete information. It did all right in my garden, but it did not increase, probably because I failed to give it lime. Most lilies like an acid soil, but not martagons.

It used to be that gardeners were told it was best to plant lily bulbs in the fall, but that is no longer an imperative. Except for the martagons. Martagons should be planted in the fall, and their soil pH raised with ground limestone.

As I considered where I might plant a few lilies in my new garden I was caught up short because a review of planting instructions reminded me that lilies need good drainage. That was not a problem in Heath but I am not willing to doom any lily bulbs to a drowning death in Greenfield. No lilies for my garden.

When choosing a site for lilies remember that they need sun, but can tolerate a little shade. Martagon lilies are the most shade tolerant. The question is how to measure sun. Sun and shade shift and change all day in my garden, but I know which areas get six hours or more, which qualify as full sun, even if those are non-consecutive hours.

Martagone lilies

Martagon lilies with its small blossoms

Because lily bulbs will be waiting to start growing do plant them in spring as early as the soil is workable.

Lilies are big plants so while you are preparing the soil be sure to add some fertilizer. Some people just depend on a 10-10-10 general fertilizer. I prefer organic fertilizers. Nitrogen is especially important at the beginning of the season so it is good to find a fertilizer with an N-P-K that is something like 5-2-2. The soil should be fertilized when planting and again every spring.

Lily bulbs should be planted between four and six inches deep depending on the size of the bulb. While planting bulbs think ahead to the full grown plant which could be four to six feet tall, and could be holding up a whole bouquet of blossoms on a single stalk. This means staking is a good idea. While you might think that having sturdy garden stakes up all winter and spring is not very attractive, there is a remedy.  As you plant your bulb place a small stake near the bulb and then fill in. Water well so soil sets in all around the bulb with no air pockets.

The little stake can be removed in the spring and a sturdy stake slid in to replace it.

Make sure the bulbs are 12 inches apart. If they are large bulbs, make it 18 inches apart.

Finally mark/label the planting site so that you will not forget where you have a new planting. I confess I have tramped across planted areas in the spring because I forgot they were planted, and even pulled up early shoots because I thought they were weeds.

Are there any lilies in your future?

Between the Rows    March 31, 2018

National Poetry Month and the Culture Hour

Penny Candy by Jean Kerr

Penny Candy by Jean Kerr contains an essay, The Poet and the Peasants, the Peasants being Jean’s five sons and their forced introduction into the world of poetry.

All through April people will be celebrating National Poetry Month, giving gift books of poetry and attending poetry readings. However, I think National Poetry Month (instituted in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets) was created as a response to the lack of attention to poetry and its joys. Actually, we are surrounded by poetry in advertising jingles, popular songs (at least that used to be true) even when we are not aware.

Last week I started thinking about Great Moments of Poetry in my life. In high school, several eons ago, Miss Pierce made us memorize Wordsworth’s The World is Too Much With Us.  I still seem to be able to recite parts of this sonnet, but not quite all of it together. However, you should hear me crying out, “Great God! I’d rather be a Pagan suckled in a creed outworn. . . .have sight of Proteus rising from the seas; Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn!”  I was in the dramatic society and remain a bit dramatic to this day. We had to memorize several poems of our own choosing but this was the only required poem. Even as a student I thought it was notable that as students living in a very wealthy town (Greenwich, Connecticut) our teacher might worry about the possibility of our laying  waste to our powers and always looking only at the bottom line.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
 When my children were young  I read an essay by Jean Kerr, wife of NYT drama critic Walter Kerr, titled The Poet and the Peasants. The Kerrs had six children, Christopher, twins Colin and John, Gilbert, Gregory, and Kitty who came along a bit later. One night Jean came into the den and turned on a light which went out. She turned on another light, which went out. In exasperation she muttered, “When I consider how my light is spent. . . .” and her husband wanted to know what poem that was from (Milton’s Sonnet on His Blindness).  Spousal horror and argument followed which ended as they thought about their five boys. Would they be able to identify a snippet of a famous poem when they heard it?

Thus was born weekly Culture Night which went through an evolving series of forms until it settled on requiring each boy to memorize a poem and recite it at Culture Night. The boys began with limericks. Not really what Jean had in mind. There was mumbling and dum-de-dumming rhythms. You can imagine the kind of encouragements Mom and Dad offered to achieve their goal. I give them high marks for not giving up the whole idea.

Culture Night, really Poetry Night, continued for years and the boys did get into it, even elucidating for their parents the meaning of a poem. Jean gives bits of poems that the boys recited with passion, roaring or weeping. She said you have not lived until a flamboyant 12 year old has leapt onto the coffee table and declaimed Alfred Noyes poem The Highwayman:

The Wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.

The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,

The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,

And the highwayman came riding –

   Riding – riding –

The highwayman came riding up to the old inn door.

And this flamboyant boy was also able to give tenderness to his reading of the love story of the highwayman and the innkeeper’s daughter. Alas, the story does not have a happy ending.

I remember reading and memorizing part of The Highwayman in high school, but not the whole. The Kerr boys recited many poems I knew and read like bits of  A. E. Houseman’s “When I was young and twenty . .   .”  and  Robert Browning’s That’s my last Duchess on the wall,/Looking as if she were alive. . . which was a poem that chilled me as the Duke “… gave commands;/Then all smiles stopped together.”

I can never finish this essay without weeping. What can a mother do when two of her sons see into her heart when referring to and making connections to two poems,  Robert Burns’ John Anderson my jo, John, and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Spring and Fall, “Margaret, are you grieving over goldengrove unleaving . . .

This essay appears with several others in Penny Candy (1966) by Jean Kerr. Several copies of the book are available through the CWMARS Library catalog, along with other books by Jean Kerr, My copy is worn but I will not do without it.

Spring – Trying hard to make an appearance


Golden crocus – proof of spring

Spring is trying its best to make itself known. For over  a week all I saw poking up through matted grass and leaves were golden buds. Then hooray – golden crocus blossoms.  Then it snowed. Blossoms closed, but remain ready for a reprise.

Sunny primroses

Sunny primroses

With such encouragement, I took a walk around the garden, and brushed away leaves while making a note that it is time to really finish spring clean up. The bed of primroses is green and healthy, but only one has been bold enough to actually bloom. Surely there will be more blooms within the week.

Elsewhere there are other spots of greenery. Daylily shoots,sheffie, rudbeckia, bee balm and Japanese primroses all sending out evidence of new green life. Real spring is on its way.

Vines Are Looking Up In My Garden

wisteria vines

Wisteria chinensis vines

Vines have become more important to me over time. Vines have become more important to me over time. When we built a south facing patio in front of our Heath house in 1990 we also planned a kind of loggia structure that would hold a wisteria vine to shade and cool the patio. to shade and cool the patio. That shade would also alter the quality of light in our living room and even keep that space a little cooler.

            We had to keep our wisteria, Wisteria chinensis, in its pot all summer while we built the structure. This was not the best idea we ever had. However, we did get it in the ground in September. In the spring the plant greened up and put out a few new shoots, but it did not climb and twine up the loggia support. Over the years our friends gave us all kinds of advice. Some said we needed to beat the plant. Some said we needed to give it more water. Others said we needed to stop watering it. Some said more fertilizer. No bit of advice had any affect.

             In 1999 my husband swatted the low and languid wisteria vines swearing that if the plant did not grow and bloom in 2000, he was pulling it out. So threatened, the wisteria complied, and we did have several years of lovely, fragrant and lush bloom.

            Not everyone will have the same problems we did. Chinese wisteria is a beautiful and vigorous vine. It comes into bloom before the foliage appears in late May and into June. The drooping purple racemes are graceful and fragrant. However, the vine can be invasive. We did not have baby wisteria growing up all around the garden, but I did have to keep cutting back new vines that grew up from the root. What I did learn is that wisteria often takes a long time to bloom, loves the sun and good well drained soil.

            Because Chinese wisteria can be invasive, some people have chosen the better behaved American wisteria, Wisteria frutescens. The flowers are smaller and less graceful. They bloom after the foliage so they don’t make much of a show and they lack fragrance. There are hard choices to make in the garden world.

            We grew another large vine in Heath. To provide a background for a rose bed next to our shed we planted a kiwi vine. This aggressive vine grew lustily and climbed up the side of the shed on the trellis my husband built.

Kiwi foliage

Kiwi, Actinidia kolomikta, foliage closeup

            I only planted one kiwi, Actinidia kolomikta, because all I wanted was the beautiful green, white and pink foliage. It takes two or three years for the color to develop, but I think it is just lovely. It does need sharp pruning to keep it under control once it gets going. Like the wisteria, it likes sun and a good rich well drained soil.

            If you want kiwi fruits you need a male and a female plant. I can tell you if one of them dies you will never remember whether it was the male or the female, and good luck ordering the appropriate replacement. I’ve heard stories.

Honeysuckle vines

Honeysuckle vines

            In our new garden we have planted trumpet honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens, to ornament our wooden fence and to attract bees and hummingbirds. Once again my husband built a sturdy trellis for the honeysuckle vines to weave in and around. The honeysuckle immediately began to grow and bloom, never looking back. It has grown and bloomed energetically on the fence that gets shade part of the day. I do some pruning to keep it from going wild, and give it a helping of compost and mulch every spring. 

trumpet vine

Trumpet vine – Campsis radicans

            The trumpet vine, Campsis radicans, is another very energetic vine native to eastern North America. It produces bright red-orange blossoms that are a delight, but it may take several years before it begins to bloom. The vines are not so shy and will begin growing immediately and can grow to 35 feet. It is aerial rootlets that allow it to cling.  These rootlets can damage stone, brick and wood. Do not plant trumpet vines against your house! I have been told that it should be grown near concrete where it can be kept under control because it can make new plants by seed, and by sending out underground runners that may come up in unexpected places. When I was on a garden tour last summer I saw a stunning trumpet vine climbing up a tall tree. The hummingbirds love it.

            Like trumpet vines the climbing hydrangea, Hydrangea anomala petiolaris, clings to its support by aerial roots, so the same warnings apply. It needs a very sturdy wall, and will cling and climb on a tree. The Bridge of Flowers has several climbing hydrangeas, although most of them artfully dangle down over the side of the Bridge. Even from a slight distance the large lace cap flowers are beautiful. Needless to say they do not get any pruning but just continue blooming year after year. It is a slow growing vine so it is necessary to practice patience the first few years after planting.

            The least problematic vine I have in my garden is the Grandpa Ott morning glory. It is the plumy purple exclamation point at the end of my fence. I provide a few strings from the ground to the top of the fence for the Grandpa to climb on; little patience is required before it clambers up the strings and blooms. After an autumnal frost I cut it all back and wait for spring. Then I arrange new strings and wait for new shoots to appear. Grandpa Ott always leaves a few seeds in the soil, so I don’t even need to replant.

           Between the Rows  March 24, 2018

Do You Have Poisonous Plants in Your Garden?

Castor bean plant

Castor bean plant – one of the first poisonous plants I knew I had in my garden

Few of us hear much about castor oil anymore, but my childhood memory is that it was a common laxative and I never imagined there was a castor bean plant and it was one of the very poisonous plants  Even as an adult I never gave a thought as to where castor oil came from so it was with great shock that when I admired a beautiful big plant with dark red-tinged leaves and prickly red seed cases it was identified as the poisonous castor bean (Ricinus communis) plant.

I continue to admire castor bean plants, but I would be too nervous to grow it in my garden. Castor bean plants are very poisonous. The poisons are ricin, a toxic protein, and ricinine, an alkaloid. When ingested the beans will cause serious symptoms from nausea, convulsions, coma and death.

Like most of us I don’t often think about whether the plants in my garden are poisonous, but I just read a startling statistic from the 2015 Annual Report by the National Poison Control Center that “plants were implicated in over 28,000 cases of poison exposures.” That statistic is a warning that if we have pets or young children we should be aware of the level of danger of some of our favorite plants.

Rhubarb only eat the stalks

Rhubarb – beautiful foliage but the leaves are poisonous

The list of plants that will cause illness and death is much longer than I imagined. I knew that rhubarb leaves were poisonous and should not be eaten, and all parts of the beautiful datura are dangerous causing hallucinations, delirium convulsions and even cause death. Foxgloves are so toxic that even the water left in a vase holding a foxglove bouquet is toxic. Poisonous plants  surround us.

If you are a reader you may recall that water hemlock, Cicuta maculata, played a vital part in A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. Water hemlock is considered the most toxic plant native to North America.

Delphiniums and foxgloves are poisonous plants

Delphiniums and foxgloves are among the list of beautiful and poisonous plants

All parts of several familiar and common plants like delphinium, foxglove, lily of the valley, daphne, monkshood, azaleas and rhododendrons are toxic and if taken in sufficient quantity can sometimes cause death.

I am fascinated that many creatures are aware of plant poisons and know they must not nibble on them. I got all excited when I was told that rhodendron flowers were toxic to honey bees. I had just planted three rhododendrons! But just in time I learned that bumblebees love rhododendron flowers and that the honey bees had zip interest in them. I can relax and enjoy my rhodies, knowing that visiting pollinators are safe. I don’t think there is anyone else of my acquaintance who might be tempted to nibble at the flowers or the foliage.


Rhododendrons – avoided by honey bees but delighting bumblebees

While we should all be aware of the toxicity of the plants in our gardens, I do not think we need to avoid these plants, we just need to be aware of the dangers. I don’t have children in my garden anymore, nor do I have pets. The squirrels and rabbits who visit must take their chances, but I actually think they are much too smart to eat anything that would upset their little stomachs.

Some houseplants are toxic as well.  Cyclamen, spathiphyllum, philodendron, kalanchoe, pothos,  and scheffleras are all dangerous for cats. Bouquets can sometimes be toxic. Lilies are highly toxic to cats who might nibble on the petals, stamens or even the roots after they knock the vase over.

You can go online to find out about the toxicity of garden plants. Cornell has a database listing poisonous plants that can hurt livestock and other animals like humans at I can tell you that the AMA Handbook of poisonous and injurious plants by Kenneth Lampe published by the American Medical Association and The Handbook of poisonous and injurious plants by Lewis Nelson are both available through our local library system.

Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart

Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart

One of my favorite garden writers is Amy Stewart. An early book she wrote is titled Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities. This fascinating book tells the story, among others, that you don’t even need to eat a certain plant to have it kill you. Nancy Hanks, Abraham Lincoln’s mother, didn’t eat the Eupotorium rugosum that caused delirium, tremors, weakness and ultimately death. It was the cow she milked that ate the white snakeroot making its milk poisonous. In 1818 when Hanks died Abraham Lincoln was only nine years old. Milk sickness was not an unheard of ailment. It was a problem for cows, as well as for those who drank their milk. Areas where the weed grew in pastures even came to be called Milk Sick Ridge and Milk Sick Holler. It was not until the 1920s that the cause of milk sickness was identified.

Stewart’s book is organized by the types and severity of poison plants from Deadly and Dangerous to Painful and includes the plants are Destructive for the way they can spread and play havoc with the environment. Purple loosestrife and Caulerpa taxifolia, a killer algae are just a few examples.  C. taxifolia is considered one of the worst invaders by the Invasive Species Specialist Group. There are many ways a plant can become dangerous and deadly.

Enjoy your gardens, but beware!

Between the Rows   March 10, 2018

Witch Hazel – Hamamelis Spring Bloomer

Hamamelis - witch hazel

Hamamelis – witch hazel

A  shrub with golden blossoms, a witch hazel, is blooming our our street. Some thought it was a forsythia that got it’s dates mixed up, but it is witch hazel, properly known as a Hamamelis, and about the earliest blooming plant in our area.

Witch hazel hamamelis

Witch hazel – Hamamelis

You have to get up close to appreciate and admire the twirly little blossoms. This is probably Hamamelis mollis, a Chinese witch hazel, because it is blooming in  the spring, beginning in February. Our neighborhood witch hazel has been blooming for about a month, enduring several snowstorms and frigid weather.

Arnold’s Promise, the golden spring  blooming witch hazel, is one of the most popular with gardeners. It usually grows no more than 12 feet tall with a generous spread.  Diane, with its red twirly blossoms is another popular spring bloomer.

Hamamelis virginiana,  our native witch hazel, blooms late in the fall. I have to say that I find Hamamelis mollis so encouraging when it bloom in the spring.

Witch hazel is a plant that  some of us may not recognize in a garden, but it is quite likely that we have a bottle of witch hazel in our medicine cabinets. It has been used for centuries to soothe various skin problems like poison ivy and hemorrhoids.

A witch hazel branch is also used by dowsers searching for water – or anything else. Experienced dowsers say you can dowse with anything  and many of them travel with a dowsing pendulum. Helen, a dowsing friend told us we  could dowse with a needle as pendulum hanging on a thread. While living in Maine we successfully needle dowsed to find the underground pipes in our new house when there was a plumbing problem.

We also asked the dowsing spirit where we should move in Maine to find our heart’s delight. It gave us a town midway up the coast, but in the end we moved to New York City. We found our heart’s delight there, too.

Delicious Culinary Herbs for Taste and Pleasure

Culinary herbs basil

A handful of basil – culinary herbs at Stockbridge Herb Farm

Culinary herbs bring flavor and savor to a meal, that bit of piquance that can turn a bland dish into something delectable. They all have their own stories as well. I enjoy thinking of women from time immemorial harvesting their herbs and preparing meals and medicinal potions for their families. Herb gardens have an ancient history and we moderns can still grow a handful of the herbs we use most often.

Simon and Garfunkel aside, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme are just the beginnings of the culinary herbs that can fill an herb garden. In my experience it is easy to find space for annual herbs in an herb garden or added to flower beds .

Every spring I buy a flat or two of Italian parsley, and a flat of curly parsley. Italian parsley with its flat leaves is considered the best culinary parsley, but I like growing curly parsley as well. Although I consider it an annual, I often find the curly parsley sending up new shoots early in the spring and it is usable almost until the Italian parsley can spare some shoots for the kitchen. Parsley is possibly the most basic used of the culinary herbs.

I do not plant parsley from seed because it takes so long to germinate. There is a saying that parsley has to go to Satan and back seven times before it will germinate. Buying a flat of plants is easier. Buying a collection of herb starts means I can have a pretty herb garden in just one afternoon.

I also buy annual basil, rosemary, tarragon and fennel, cilantro, and onion plant starts. The rosemary can sometimes make it through the winter indoors, but that really depends on the indoor climate of your house.

Aromatic fennel is both a vegetable and and an herb. The fennel ‘bulb’ can be braised for a delicious side dish, and the fronds can be used in salads, pesto and adding a piquant note to salmon en papillote. You can add that licorice-y flavor to any number of dishes. While scallions are not really an herb I plant a handful of spring onion starts as well. Many summer salads and dishes call for a few scallions and it is a treat to be able to go outside and pick them as needed.

Cilantro, with its lacy foliage resembles parsley and is in a class by itself. The cilantro foliage is useful in many ways, but it must be admitted it goes to seed quickly. It is best to make succession plantings to keep flavorful cilantro foliage coming throughout the season. Cilantro is a staple in many Mexican, and southeast Asian dishes. When cilantro goes to seed, it is called coriander so it is really two herbs in one.

dill is one of my favorite culinary herbs

Dill is one of my favorite culinary herbs

Other useful and common herbs are the perennials: dill, chives, lemon balm, and mints like spearmint, peppermint, chocolate mint, pineapple mint. Dill and chives are well behaved in my garden. I don’t make dill pickles and confess that I love the dill for its fragrance as much as its flavor. It’s a reminder of my childhood and the vegetable gardens of my grandmother and aunt in Vermont. Dill fronds, otherwise known as dill weed, add flavor to many dishes as do the seeds when they are set and ready to be harvested for winter use. Some of that dill seed always falls on the ground and plant another year’s crop. I have not found it to be invasive at all.

Chive clumps will increase in size every year so from time to time you can share a piece with a friend. The globular lavender flowers can be tossed into a salad for a bit of color and laughter when served.

Sage is almost like a tiny bush in the herb garden. I prefer the plain silvery sage. I harvest leaves during the season as necessary, and I always dry a few leaves to keep for the winter. There are fancier sages showing off golden foliage, or purple or tri-color, but these are not as hardy.

Finally there is thyme and I plant thyme in my lawn. The English have been known to have thyme lawns and I have found common thyme pretty in the lawn, and useful as an edging plant, just waiting to be harvested as needed. Like sage, thyme is available in shades of gold and green and a dull gray-green that covers the ground like a carpet.

A circle of thyme

This circle of thyme at Pickety Place has thyme to eat and thyme to admire

There is absolutely no reason that herbs cannot be planted among the ornamentals in your garden. However, I like having my herbs near the kitchen door. One benefit is that they are close at hand and I can nip out when I need a few leaves for recipe. There is also the advantage that since I walk by it several times a day I often stop to do a bit of weeding, keeping it neat, turning it into a welcoming doorway garden.

Still, I find that parsley makes a great edging plant, and any of the fancy sages would be a pretty note in the flower garden.

Herbs are not demanding plants. They have been grown since ancient times when they had medicinal as well as culinary uses.  They require sun and soil of average fertility. Like all new plantings they should be kept watered as they are becoming established, but beyond that they need very little care.

Herbs are also happy outdoors in containers, whether a collection of classic terra cotta pots, or more decorative pots. Herbs and other plants grown in containers do need to be watered regularly which in the summer heat means every day.

Between the Rows  March 10, 2018