Subscribe via Email

If you're not receiving email notifications of new posts, subscribe by entering your email...

Trees – For Beauty and Benefit

Trees in Central Park NYC

Trees in Central Park – an urban forest

Here in New England we can take trees for granted. Trees line our streets, our roads, and our highways. We do not have to work hard to find a woodland that invites us to stroll and enjoy a period of cool tranquility. The Japanese even have a word, Shinrin-yoku, or ‘forest bathing,’ for the practice of taking a walk in the woods for the health benefits it brings.

And yet, many of us are not familiar with the names of many trees, or the particular benefits any of them might give. When I lived in Heath I was surrounded by trees, but beyond being able to identify a maple, oak or beech tree, I was at a loss. Now that I live in town, and am thinking about what trees could be added to my street I have been paying attention to the specific forms of tree and leaf, and the benefits and needs of any particular tree species.

Central Park Trees and Lake

Central Park Woodland at edge of the Lake

Over the Thanksgiving holiday my husband and I visited friends in New York City. That Sunday in NY was sunny and breezy and the crowds that we joined in Olmstead’s Central Park were taking full advantage. People were strolling through this veritable forest and I am sure we were all gaining health benefits as we took pictures, took rides in horse drawn or bicycle cabs, or queued up for a rowboat to paddle around the tranquil lake. We did pay attention to the trees along the paths, many of which were helpfully labeled. I took particular note of an ancient beech tree with unique leaves.

There are other parks throughout the New York boroughs and it seems the essential element of any park is always a grove of trees. We can see that ourselves in the small Energy Park right in the center of town or the larger woodland of Highland Park.

On Monday, my brother and his wife took us for a tour of Princeton University where Beatrix Farrand created the landscaping plan beginning in 1912 and did not leave the job to others until 1934. It was a park-like aspect that she wanted to create because she said, “We all know that education is by no means a mere matter of books, and the aesthetic environment contributes as much to growth as facts assembled from a printed page.”

Trees at Princeton U.

Trees at Princeton University, a park-like effect

Farrand may have had a special soft spot for Princeton because it was there in January of 1913 that she met her husband, the distinguished visiting professor of history Max Farrand. I heard no stories of any romances she might have had until she met Farrand, but when Max’s sister-in-law heard rumors of a romance she took herself to the campus and watched the ‘bush woman’ directing her workers. Having made her observations she declared that “If that woman really wants Max, she’ll get him!” Readers, she married him before December was done.

Farrand was devoted to landscape gardening beginning in 1872 when she was only 20. She did study under the tutelage of Charles Sprague Sargent, founder of Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum, and was the sole female among the founders of the American Society of Landscape Architects formed in 1899.

She might not have called herself a feminist, but when she was interviewed by a reporter from the New York Daily Tribune in 1900, her response to what must have been an obnoxious question about her work rates was “I have put myself through the same training and I look for the same rewards.”  We women are still fighting that particular battle, but Farrand was there before us.

Sycamore

Sycamore in front of my house

Over the course of her career Farrand designed more than 100 gardens including estate gardens like Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC, which I visited earlier this year, as well as the White House, Yale University and many estate gardens in Maine. More locally, she designed the tree lined approach to The Mount which was built by her aunt, the novelist Edith Wharton, in 1901.

I will never plan a landscape or planting of trees on such a large scale, but on our urban plot of land I have new appreciation of the shade of a giant sycamore that was probably planted when the house was built around 1925. Later someone planted the deliciously fragrant Japanese lilac tree and I have the borrowed shade from my neighbor’s maple and oak trees. I have added two clumps of river birch and a small weeping cherry tree, and an assortment of native shrubs like viburnams because they please my eye, but I have been particularly mindful of their benefits to the insects and birds that come to my garden.

Now when I think about what beneficial trees could be added to our street I think about redbuds that bloom so beautifully in the spring, or a stately red maple, or maybe a hawthorn with its bright red berries in the fall.

When I drive by the beautiful new John Zon Community Center on Pleasant Street I wonder what trees will be planted there. Right now the Center grounds look austere. Like any building it needs trees and other plants to create a welcoming and comfortable presence. Will there be an oak that will support 500 species of insects and birds and provide shady grandeur? Will there be majestic tulip poplars? Will there be red maples?

Until spring I’ll be dreaming of the new kinds of trees that may come into my neighborhood and the pleasure they will bring

Between the Rows   December 9, 2017

Merry Christmas and a Year of Happy Days

Our Christmas Tree 2015

We officially moved into our Greenfield house on October 24, 2015, just in time to stock up on bags of candy for the 100+ children – mostly very young children – who showed up in princess and ninja attire on Halloween. The celebrations had begun.

No longer could we go out into the field to cut  our own tree, but we were happy to shop at the open air market on Main Street and buy a beauty. This tree would take its place in our family history and be the first 21st century Greenfield tree. The ornaments were already filled with memories.

We send our best wishes for a happy holiday season to all – no matter when you are.

Houseplants in Print and in Pots

House Plants

Houseplants – The Complete Guide to Choosing, Growing and Caring for Indoor Plants

Houseplants: The Complete Guide to Choosing, Growing and Caring for Indoor Plants by Lisa Eldred Steinkopf (Cool Springs Press $30) has a cool green and white cover, but the first time I happened to open it I was presented with a double spread of colorful house plants with the encouraging label Easy-to-Grow. As we enter the holiday season, a season of color and sparkle, colorful plants make a beautiful gift, but that beauty can be ephemeral if we don’t have some information about plant care.

Steinkopf has been giving that information for many years and in many forums from HGTVgardens.com, Michigan Gardener Magazine, Real Simple Magazine and on her own blog TheHouseplantGuru.com. She lives with her own collection of 1000 houseplants and knows whereof she speaks.

I don’t have a lot of houseplants. My excuse is too few windows, but full disclosure means I have to confess to a lack of attention. Steinkopf attends to both of these problems which are not uncommon. She provides new information about lighting for plants. LED lights are a boon to light loving plants and more effective that the fluorescent lights that have been the standard. As for paying attention she suggests keeping a magnifying glass at hand and explains how to look for problems. As my eyes age this is a good idea on many fronts, but this past year I missed the mealy bugs on a small palm and the borers on my squash plant. A magnifying glass is on my wish list this holiday season.

Houseplants is a comprehensive book about every aspect of plant care from potting, and re-potting, watering and fertilizing, lighting, grooming and propagation (you’ll have plants to give away as gifts) and a problem solving chapter which will advise on how to look closely at your plants. There is also a section on those special kinds of indoor gardens like terrariums and dish gardens.

Some holiday gift plants are not really intended to be blooming a year from now. Poinsettias are certainly a case in point, as are paper white narcissus and other bulbs that will spend all their energy in that holiday flush. I have finally learned how to make my amaryllis bloom again, but many people do not and that is fine. Of course Thanksgiving and Christmas cactus can grow and bloom for generations!

Poinsettias

Poinsettias everywhere

We Greenfielders are familiar with the great array of plants available at the Farmer’s Coop on High Street. At this time of the year the poinsettia in all its many colors and patterns may be queen, but the Farmers Coop offers many other lovely flowering gifts. One of my favorites is cyclamen, but there are those holiday cactuses and fine mosses that some close to taking me to a quiet woodland. You will also find other gifts for the gardener including colorful ceramic pots, gloves and trowels and all the other tools that are needed outdoors. I was also taken with the bee houses that make it easy for all those native bees that most of us cannot identify or name.

Right across the street from the Farmer’s Coop is Sigda’s Florist which will have their collection of familiar holiday plants as well as dish gardens that will be especially interesting in their variety.

I trekked over to the Hadley Garden Center which has a large room filled with houseplants like Reiger begonias in sunny colors, large amaryllis bulbs just sending up fat shoots, orchids, ferns, lemon trees and Norfolk pines, just to name a few. Succulents come in many forms  and are a good gift for new gardeners. The HGC also has pots in all sizes and colors as well as garden ornaments.

Cyclamen

Cyclamen

Then it was on to Andrews Greenhouse in Amherst. There I got to meet owner Andy Cowles and his loyal assistant Carol Dwyer in the propagating greenhouse. They will also have ranks of familiar Christmas flowers, but I was lucky enough to see the plants that they propagated themselves. I got to meet the Mother Begonia that has seen countless of her snipped leaves turn into daughters, granddaughters, and who knows how many greats granddaughters.

Begonia propagation by leaf cuttings

Begonia propagation by leaf cuttings

They were so enthusiastic showing me the babies of succulents and explaining how I could handle the growth of these dependable plants. Pinch and prune is their motto – for just about every type of plant actually. Those are the magic words that keep a dish garden of succulents looking beautiful and healthy. I always looked at those finished gardens with annoyance thinking it was all very well, but those plants were going to grow and change and then what?  Pinch and prune.  It did seem doable. I’ll just have to be brave.

Andy Cowles at Andrews Greenhouse

Andy Cowles at Andrews Greenhouse in Amherst with mother begonia

I loved the ferns, especially the maidenhair ferns, and the asparagus fern took me back to my first houseplants on Grinnell Street in 1971 – when everyone seemed to have asparagus ferns in their windows. It was impressed upon me that the ferns and all these houseplants filter and clean the air.

Before I left Andrews Greenhouse I walked through the colorful holiday shop that was being arranged by designer Sara Bresson, a wonderland of ornaments. It will be hard to resist a new shiny bauble or two on your way out.

Between the Rows   December 2, 2017

Then and Now – I Celebrate My 10th Blogaversary

Feast of St. Nicholas snow in Heath many years ago

Today I celebrate another blogaversary. Ten years ago I inaugurated my commonweeder blog. As a reader and a gardener I enjoyed the little play on words as the commonWEEDER and opposed to Virginia Woolf’s CommonREADER books of essays. I had the most basic of ideas about what a blog was, but a good friend who knows more about such things said  I needed a blog. I acknowledged in my first post that I did not know what was to come. I did intend the blog as an invitation to join me in my garden, and other gardens that I visited.

Certainly December does not seem like the most auspicious time of year to start a garden blog, but I always say (when I have forgotten a birthday or anniversary) that I am not a slave to the calendar – in any sense.

And so I began, with the brief post below.  Already it suggests that there will be talk about books as well as about gardens.

Am I too old to Blog? We’ll find out, but in any event I thought that the Feast of Saint Nicholas would be the perfect day to inaugurate my blog. There isn’t anything going on in the garden outside so when the temperature is only 7 degrees above 0, as it was this morning, my only gardening desire is in books. I just picked up my old copy of Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden by Eleanor Perenyi. I’ve seen mention of this wonderful book which wanders through her garden and the gardens of history and literature from A to Z in several blogs lately and was reminded of its delights.

The J listing was James vs Benson, and if Eleanor Perenyi is new to younger gardeners it is even more likely that they are unfamiliar with E.F. Benson and his books about Lucia and Mapp, and his humorous description of British country life in the 1920s through the eyes of two outrageous ladies. Lucia and Mapp are another whole story (5 volumes actually) and I wouldn’t mention them here except that Perenyi has found descriptions of the same garden by Henry James and E.F. Benson. Both men lived in the same house, Benson after James, had the same outdoor space and very different views. Gardening is all about indulging our different views, but Benson got so much more pleasure out of his.

In fact I enjoyed Eleanor Perenyi’s book so much that I engaged in my own A to Z projects, most recently in April of 2016 when A began with Achillea and ended with Z is for Zinnia.

As I celebrate this 10th Blogaversary we live in Greenfield, but instead of green fields surrounding the house we have a small urban garden devoted to water loving shrubs and many pollinator plants. There is no snow today!

The view from my so-called office on December 5, 2017

There are changes in the weather since 2007, changes in the gardens, and a change in me. I’m a GREAT-grandmother now.  There have been many things to celebrate and I look  forward to many years of new celebrations.

Secret Gardeners, Naturalists, and Wild Seeds

The Secret Gardeners

The Secret Gardeners by Victoria Summerley

The Secret Gardeners – Britain’s Creatives Reveal Their Private Sanctuaries by Victoria Summerley with photographs by Hugo Rittson Thomas (Francis Lincoln $45) is a glamorous armchair tour of beautiful gardens created such creative people as Sir Richard Branson, Julian Fellowes, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Rupert Everett, Sting and 20 other familiar and not so familiar British stars.

Most of us don’t think we are engaged in garden design when we go out to plant a perennial bed or plant a tree. We might be thinking of a garden we have admired, or of a green memory or a dreamed of desire that we want to bring to life. But all of that is what goes into a garden design. That is equally true for the gardeners in this remarkable book. Author Victoria Summerly explains, ‘All artists, whether they are writers, musicians, actors, painters or sculptors, use their experience of life as raw material for their work. The owners in this book have applied the same process to their gardens.”

            Since many of this books gardeners are performers of one kind of or another it is no surprise that in addition to lush flower beds, vine covered stone walls, streams and rills there will be some major projects and unusual accents. When Sir Richard Branson bought his property in Oxfordshire the first thing he did was to dig out a lake, complete with islands to welcome and support waterfowl.

Ozzy Osbourne’s garden includes an iconic red telephone booth and the model of a cow looking down on a great flower bed. I was particularly fascinated by Sting’s garden with a pollarded Lime Walk which is sculptural in winter and cooling in summer, as well as a grassy labyrinth. And of course Sting’s wife, Trudie, has a wonderful rose garden.            The Secret Gardeners is a book for dreaming, but we gardeners might easily find some element that would translate beautifully in our own garden, perhaps with a little scaling down.

The Naturalist's Notebook

The Naturalist’s Notebook by Wheelwright and Heinrich

The Naturalist’s Notebook for Tracking Changes in the Natural World Around You by Nathaniel T. Wheelwight and Bernd Heinrich (Storey Publishing $19.95) is a book with a very different goal – teaching us how to observe the natural world around us including its finest details, and keep a record of our observations in the Five Year Journal pages.

By nature I am not a detail person – at the same time I want to be attentive to the beauties and fluctuations of the natural world around me. As a gardener I do pay attention to the larger changes in my garden and I keep minimal weather records in a notebook along with names of plants planted – and sometimes I list when they die out. But I want to see more and I want to know more. I have launched myself into this book and the instructions it provides.

After introductory notes the first chapter is Being Attentive and then we embark into directions and suggestions about how to be observant and the tools we might need from quick drying pants, a magnifying glass, a camera, an insect net, and other small items like a pH meter and thermometer that will help measure the physical characteristics of ponds and streams. Wheelwright and Heinrich have given us practical instructions about outfitting ourselves as they teach us what to look for and the questions to ask ourselves as we make our observations.

We live where it is easy, even in the town of Greenfield to go on a nature walk and look at the identifying form of a tree from its canopy to the tiny details of its leaf buds. Reading this book reminded me of the square-foot field trip, a science exercise we teachers-to-be at Umass practiced, which made us aware of how much there was to see and learn in any square foot of lawn or wilderness.

Half of the Naturalist’s Notebook is given over to the 5 year Calendar-Journal. It is organized a week at a time over five years so that you can compare changes in weather and sightings of plants or wildlife at a glance. Wheelwright and Heinrich even give suggestions about writing with abbreviations and symbols. They also suggest that you might want to keep a larger journal with not only information about what is happening around you, but what you are thinking and feeling as you make your observations. This beautiful book is a Notebook, and a journal will allow for fuller descriptions, but it is a wonderful beginning.

Planting the Wild Garden

Planting the Wild Garden by Kathryn O. Galbraith

If you have a budding young naturalist in your family I can recommend Kathryn  Galbraith’s book, Planting the Wild Garden with illustrations by Wendy Anderson Halperin (Peachtree $15.95) This beautiful book has won literary prizes and prizes for science and nature writing.

Many of us start our children’s gardening with a few seeds in a tiny part of our own gardens. However, many of the flowers and plants around us are planted by Mother Nature with help from the wind and rain, and animals who carry the seeds in their fur, or in their droppings. When I read this story to local first graders, they always giggle at the thought of seeds travelling in animal poop.

Books are high on my gift giving list. I know the gardeners on my list welcome a new instructive and entertaining book as much as I do.  Happy shopping.

Between the Rows  November 25, 2017

 

Thanksgiving Dinner – Granddaughter Hosts

The groaning board is ready for the feast

There has been a lot of emailing and telephoning among the women in my family as we plan the Thanksgiving dinner. This year, for the first time, it will be granddaughter Tracy and her husband who are hosting the feast.

I got to thinking about where the makings of our holiday meal had come from over the years. When I was very young we lived on my Uncle Wally’s farm and much of our food was produced on the farm. Aunt Ruth had charge of the vegetable garden and the chickens. Most of the chickens were sold as broilers, and eggs were sold as well but the family took its own share. Over the summer and fall shelves in the basement filled with shining jars of vegetables, jam and pickles that Aunt Ruth put by.

But from fourth grade on ours was a suburban life and our food came from the supermarket. I remember putting all the canned vegetables, corn, peas, beets and more onto a large shelf along the cellar stairs. Supermarket fruit and vegetables came bagged or wrapped up. There was no picking and choosing from a grocery store bin. In the early 50s there weren’t even many frozen vegetables. Remember when refrigerators had just a little frosty box that held two or three ice cube trays?

We have all watched the frozen food coolers get larger and larger to hold frozen vegetables, frozen snacks, and whole frozen meals. Nowadays women and men both come home at the end of a busy work day and it can be a challenge to start cooking a big meal – especially if there are  meetings and events to attend after dinner.

But my food sources started to change in 1971 when I moved to Greenfield, joined a tiny food coop and planted my first very small vegetable garden. I also met Henry, the man who would become my husband, and had his own ideas about food. Gone for good were the days of canned vegetables and cake mixes.

After sojourns in Maine and New York City we returned to Massachusetts. Life in Heath gave us vegetable gardens, berry bushes, chickens, and for several years we raised pigs and turkeys. I was grateful to have all the makings of a Thanksgiving dinner right at hand.

Granddaughter Lola’s handmaade napkin ring

I continue to be grateful for the produce and products that are grown and made locally. I am grateful for all the farms and orchards that add so much to our tables, and to our local economy.

I am grateful for Green Fields Coop, and grateful to be a member.

I am grateful for the Greenfield Farmer’s Market that opened in 1975 selling local produce which now includes meat, fish, mushrooms, and items like bread, maple syrup and jams from May through October.

When the Winter Market was created in 2008 farmers learned to grow crops that could be sold throughout the winter.  This year the successful Winter Markets are being held at Four Corners School today November 18, also December 2, January 6, February 3 and March 3. Once you have fresh produce you want it all the time.

I am grateful for the celebratory Harvest Dinner in Court Square, for the Stone Soup Café and for all the community meals that are served up in the community. We all deserve to be fed, to be free from hunger.

I am grateful for the Community Involved in Sustainable Agriculture (CISA) organization. It only became official in 1999 by which time there were already CSA farms selling weekly shares of their produce. For those of us who can’t have, or no longer enjoy the work of a vegetable garden, we can still get freshly harvested edibles, vegetable, fruit or meat and flowers – and be a Local Hero. The number of farm stands has also grown over the years, and Hager’s Farm Market on Route 2 has taken the farm stand to a whole new delicious level.

I’m grateful for the farmers who have a creative sense of humor. There autumnal Corn Mazes and Hager’s has an annual Pumpkin Smash and many other events all year.

I am grateful for the Franklin County Community Development Corporation (FCCDC) which has a growing food processing center where entrepreneurs can start up new businesses like Katalyst Kombucha, and produce can be canned or frozen, or turned into salsa or other products. They also help find local institutional markets like schools to buy those products.

I am grateful for Mary McClintock who showed me, and all of us, how to savor the seasons, introducing us to local farmers and gardeners over the past ten years.  I will miss her enthusiasm – and the recipes she shared.

Thanksgiving Day Action at the table

I am grateful for my family who has puts its own twist on the Thanksgiving celebration. We begin on Dessert Night, the night before Thanksgiving, with pies, cookies and pumpkin roll. Our thinking is we can’t possibly eat and savor all the desserts after a huge turkey dinner so we need to get a headstart. As the great-grandmother I think I can claim the smallest assignment this year. I will bring homemade cranberry sauce, and I promised to bring the canned cranberry sauce too. My daughters may still be fighting over who gets to bring the 1950s green bean casserole but Diane, Betsy, Tricia, Caitlin, Carissa, Connie and Tracy have it all well in hand.

Between the Rows   November 18, 2017

First Snowfall of the Year

First snowfall

First Snowfall of the year?

After a very mild autumn I woke up this morning to the first snowfall of the year. Or am I just jumping ahead into winter prematurely?  I have a whole month before Winter officially arrives.  We never know what the future will hold, weatherwise – or any other -wise.

World of Laura Ingalls Wilder

The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder

The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Marta McDowell

It is hard to imagine that any family with young daughters is not familiar with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s  Little House on the Prairie books which include Little House in the Big Woods, Life on the Shores of Silver Lake and the Little Town on the Prairie. Now, Marta McDowell who has written Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life and Emily Dickinson’s Gardens has come along to tell us the story of  the Ingalls family’s life in her new book The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes that Inspired the Little House Books (Timber Press $27.95).

The Ingalls’ life is an odyssey taking Charles and Caroline Ingalls and their daughters, Mary, Laura, Grace and Carrie from Wisconsin to Iowa, Kansas, South Dakota, Minnesota and Missouri. I never imagined that pioneers crossing the plains and prairie might have done so much moving around, or the trials that might have inspired those moves. They were always a farming family, but from time to time Charles found himself also working temporarily at other jobs.

Laura was born 150 years ago, in 1867. She earned her teaching certificate in DeSmet, South Dakota when she was 16.  In 1885, she and the young homesteader Almanzo Wilder married. She was 18 and he was 28. Their daughter Rose was born a year later.

Those early years were difficult for the young couple moving from place to place, but in 1894 they settled at Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Missouri for good. Their farm came with a bonus, 1000 small apple trees, many of them just heeled in waiting to be planted. During their first year they cleared the land and got the rest of the apple trees in the ground. It took up most of their energy, but those orchards turned out to be a great gift.

It was while living at Rocky Ridge Farm that Laura began her writing career. In 1911 her first article was published in the Missouri Ruralist but soon she had articles published in other in other newspapers and magazines.

Of course, daughter Rose was growing up all this time. She graduated from high school in 1904 and began to learn how to operate the telegraph. She did not stay in Mansfield, but was soon working for Western Union and for the next five years she worked as a telegrapher in Missouri, Indiana, and California.

It was Rose who encouraged her mother’s writing, especially after she herself began writing professionally beginning with the San Francisco bulletin. With her own writing career well on its way Rose was not only able to encourage her mother, but to help her place articles and inspired her to begin writing the Little House books.

In later life Laura once commented that “she told the truth in her books – but not the whole truth,” so we have to remember that the Little House books are not autobiographies. It is Marta McDowell who gives us a well-researched book about the life of three Ingalls/Wilder generations. The book is illustrated with some of the charming drawings by Helen Sewell and Garth Williams in the Little House books, botanical drawings of plants that were important or loved by the family, maps and family photographs.

It is amazing to contemplate the changes in our country and in every day life over the course of Laura’s life between 1867 and 1957 when she died at the age of 90.

The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder is a remarkable book. It gives us a history of a wonderful family, a history of farming and a reminder of the changes in communication and transportation. But that is not enough for McDowell.

Marta McDowell

Marta McDowell – Courtesy of Timber Press.

The final section of the book is devoted to the scenes of the Wilder’s lives as recreated or preserved by various organizations like the Almanzo and Laura Ingalls Wilder Association which cares for the museum in Malone, New York. Those who love the Little House books can continue on to Burr Oak, Iowa and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum; the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society and Ingalls Homestead in DeSmet South Dakota; and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri.

This book is not for children, but it might be a spur to present one or two of the Little House books to a child in your family. Christmas is coming. It is a book for people who are interested in the history of our country, the plants that fed a population, the plants that brought delight, the character of the people who settled the lands beyond the Mississippi River, and their tenacity in continuing on even when the challenges of weather and change seemed insurmountable.

The always spectacular fall Chrysanthemum Show at the Lyman Conservatory at Smith College continues Saturday and Sunday, November 18 and 19, 2017.  The greenhouse is open from 10 am to 4 pm.  It showcases the hybridizing experiments of the horticulture class. The public gets a chance to vote on their favorites. A donation of $5 is suggested.

Between the Rows   November 11, 2017

Fall – Time to Get a Soil Test

Soil Testing

Tracy Allen, Supervisor of Soil Testing Lab at Umass

“This is the best time to test your soil,” Tracy Allen, supervisor of the University of Massachusetts Soil Test Laboratory, told me as she showed me around the very clean room filled with lots of boxy equipment and various kinds of glass beakers. “We run about sixteen to eighteen thousand soil tests a year, and most of those requests come in between April and June. We are really busy then, and people won’t get their test results as quickly.”

She showed me the many different types of equipment used from the ovens that dry the soil samples when they first come in, the sieving machine that shakes out sand and gravel, and the machine that creates the soil extracts that are tested by a spectrometer to identify 16 nutrients in the soil. It became clear to me why it takes time to get an accurate and useful test result.

During our years in Heath I sent an occasional soil sample to the lab. Instead of spreading around a 5-10-5 fertilizer around, I knew I was adding my own N-P-K fertilizers. There was nitrogen from my composted chicken manure, phosphate rock for phosphorus, and greensand for potassium, but I didn’t know whether my soil needed more of specific nutrients. The Umass test results not only told me the measurements of these three main necessary nutrients, they gave me a measure of the important trace elements like magnesium, manganese and boron, as well as the organic material in my soil. They also gave recommendations for improving the soil. One of the advantages of using organic fertilizers is that they work slowly, feeding plants over time, not giving them a big rush all at once. The brief saying “feed the soil, not the plant” has been my guide.

The Umass soil testing lab makes it possible to efficiently choose fertilizers to improve your soil. It also gives warnings of lead or other heavy metals that might be in the soil. If you are growing vegetables, you do not want them taking up these heavy metals and serving them at the dinner table.

Soil Extracts ready for the spectrometer

As we walked past the various machines Allen explained that while at least 50 percent of the test requests were for home gardens, they also got requests from landscapers, golf courses, and construction companies. I could understand the needs that landscapers and golf course staff would have but Allen had to explain that construction companies needed to know the soil composition before they put down any paving. The lab has special tests for greenhouse operators who need to know the makeup of the soilless media they use for their crops.

The lab has a website which offers a downloadable test form and complete directions for taking a soil sample. It is important to take your sample carefully. Use a clean pail and clean tools to collect 12 samples from different areas of your garden. Each of these sub-samples should be six to eight inches deep. Do not take samples when the soil is very wet.

Mix all the sub-samples together, removing stones and other debris. Take a cup of the mixed samples and spread on a piece of clean paper to fully dry in the air. Do not use heat to dry the soil. Place the cupful of air dried soil in a labeled zip lock plastic bag. Print and fill out the downloadable submission form. Label your sample. I used my last name and the designation ‘vegetable garden.’

The routine soil analysis costs $15. The results will list pH, nutrient levels including phosphorous and potassium, as well as the important trace elements of calcium, magnesium, iron manganese, zinc, copper and boron. The test will also measure the heavy metals lead and aluminum. It is these measures that make it possible to give recommendations for adjusting pH and adding fertilizers.

There are additional tests. I always wanted to know the level of organic matter in the soil. This test costs an additional $6. Farmers might be interested in other more specific tests. If you are asking for multiple tests, for example if your front and backyards seem to have very different qualities, there is a cost for each sample bag.

Downloadable testing request forms are available at http://soiltest.umass.edu.

The lab does not accept credit or debit cards. Send a check with your sample for the proper amount made out to the University of Massachusetts to 203 Paige Laboratory, 161 Holdsworth Way, Amherst, MA 01003

Umass has other resources for the home gardener through the Extension Outreach programs available through the soil testing lab website. These include various Fact Sheets, and a subscription to Clippings newsletter. You can also send your garden questions to greeninfo@umext.umass.edu.

UMass Garden Calendar

UMass Garden Calendar 2018

Gift giving season is upon us. UMass Extension puts out a beautiful and useful calendar every year. There are gorgeous flower photographs, and useful information for every day of the year. The 2018 UMass Garden Calendar includes a featured article about Insects to Look for in Massachusetts which, along with a short segment on beneficial pollinators, presents key information on, and photos of current invasive insects of note. Calendars are $12 each. You can order online with a credit cared by going to https://ecommerce.umass.edu/extsales/. Add shipping of $3.50 for one calendar and $2.00 for each additional calendar up to nine.

An Early Bloom Day – before hard frost

Sheffield daisies

Sheffield daisies

Will my garden be blooming on November 15. the official Garden Bloggers Bloom Day? Maybe not. Therefore, I went around the garden today taking photos of the flowers blooming this very unusually warm November day. We have yet to have a hard frost although some plants were bitten and succumbed. This is what’s left on this gloomy day with a temperature of 50 degrees at 4 in the afternoon

Knockout red rose

Knockout red rose still budding

Thomas Affleck rose

Thomas Affleck rose in a languorous pose

Limelight hydrangea

” one of three hydrangeas blooming

Nasturtiums

Annual nasturtium still sending out new blossoms

Butterfly Argyanthemum frutescens

Proven Winner Butterfly still blooming

Toad lilies – Tricyrtis

Red winterberry

Winterberry – holiday color if not a bloom

English holly

English holly right by the front steps

Daylight savings left, Eastern Standard time arrived and so did the 5 o’clock dark. But winter is not here yet so I celebrate this bloom day.