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Dear Friend and Gardener

It’s the Berries – Blueberry and Raspberry

Blueberries in a bowl

Blueberries in a bowl

Time to think about berries. February is National Pie Month and I love fruit pies. Blueberry pie is a longtime favorite. The Benson Place in Heath was my source for low bush blueberries, but I grew a collection of high bush blueberries behind our house. Now in Greenfield I have planted four Nourse Farms high bush blueberries in a square that can be easily netted.

Highbush Blueberries

Blueberries are easy to grow and they are long lived. Our Heath high bush berries were still bearing generously after 35 years and demanded very little care.

Highbush blueberries

Highbush blueberries

High bush blueberries, which are the most usual blueberries for the home garden, have few requirements. They need sun, well drained acid soil, and most especially soil with a pH of 4.5 to 5.5. New England is famous for having acid soil, but it is a good idea to have it tested. We can usually find Master Gardeners volunteering to run soil tests in the spring at Farmer’s Markets and other seasonal events. Or you can buy a soil testing kit that will give you a pH reading. If the pH is too high, over 6, you can dig in a measure of sulphur or fertilize with an acidic product like Holly-tone fertilizer.

The biggest problem with blueberries is the birds. I had not taken this into consideration when I first planted blueberries more than 35 years ago, but my four new blueberries are planted in a 10×10 foot grid, which will be a little tight as they grow, but it will be easy to build a simple frame and enclose the bushes with netting as the berries start to ripen. I also recommend giving the berry patch or row a woodchip mulch. I pruned out dead branches when necessary, but that is pretty much the extent of care needed.

Blueberries do best when they can cross pollinate, and there are enough cultivars that ripen at different tines giving you a longer season. Duke is an early season berry, as are Bluegold and Patriot, all ready for harvest mid-to late July. Chandler and Darrow can be harvested into mid- August and Elliot will be fruiting into September. Of course, harvest periods may vary with your site and the year’s weather.

Blueberries have the added advantages of having delicate little bell-shaped blossoms in the spring and vibrant color in the fall. No need for the illegal burning bush.

Raspberries

Raspberries

Raspberries

Raspberries are about as easy to grow as blueberries, but they require a higher pH, between 5.6 and 6.2. As with any planting, the soil should be improved with compost before planting. The recommendation is that raspberry rows should be spaced 8 feet apart, but I have to admit that I never gave myself that much room between the rows. Raspberries will ripen in July; each variety will have a harvest period of about three weeks so it is good to choose at least two varieties to give you a longer harvest.

Latham is a standard variety that has been around for a long time and is a good berry for eating fresh or made into jam. There are other new varieties like Encore, another red raspberry, as well as Royalty,  a purple variety, and Anne that produces pale yellow fruits with a good flavor. Royalty and Anne are ready for harvest late in the season.

Once they have fruited the raspberry canes should be cut back down to the ground. New shoots will come up in the spring. Eventually those increasing numbers of new shoots will wander into the paths and need to be cut down as well. When the rows simply become crowded or some canes look flimsy  they can be removed as well. I am only talking about regular summer bearing raspberries. I have never been organized enough to tackle the pruning schedule for everbearing berries which need to be pruned twice.

There is no need for netting. Apparently birds are not particularly interested in raspberries.

I have not talked at all about black raspberries which propagate by sending out long wicked spiny canes that root when they touch the ground. Obviously, with attention and some work they can be managed, but I was quickly overwhelmed by my black raspberries in Heath. The flexible thorny canes had a life of their own and grew exuberantly. I found it hard to prune and manage them; even getting rid of the prunings was a chore.

For all that I never even got much of a harvest. When I called the good people at Nourse Farm as to what might be causing the shrivelling of my berries before they finished ripening, they though the problem might be insufficient watering. In Heath our water came from a well and I did not have sufficient for watering more than I did. I mention all this because I do not want anyone to think that black raspberries require the same care as red and golden raspberries. The first clue to their difference is that Latham and the other raspberries I’ve mentioned should be spaced 18 inches apart, but black raspberries need to be spaced 3 feet apart.

There are many other berries that can thrive in a backyard garden, but blackberries, strawberries, pineberries which are actually a white strawberry that tastes a little like a pineapple, lingonberries, and currants will have to wait for another day.

Between the Rows   February 18, 207

Benefits of Blueberries

Lowbush blueberries at the Benson Place in Heath, MA

Lowbush blueberries at the Benson Place

Blueberries offer many benefits to the gardeners who want to grow more of their own food. When I lived in Heath I had access to the low-bush blueberry farms that operate there, but highbush blueberries were among the first shrubs I planted. I do not prefer one over the other, except that the highbush blueberries are larger and easier to pick. Nowadays lowbush blueberries to plant are much more available than they once were. We are also fortunate that we live near Nourse Farms which sells a variety of highbush blueberries from Patriot and Reka which begin bearing early in the season to Jersey and Nelson which are late season bearers. You can have fresh blueberries from your garden over a long season, into September. Having two or more varieties will also give you the cross pollination that is needed for good fruiting.

Blueberry pickers at the Benson Place in Heath, MA

Blueberry Pickers at Benson Place

Blueberry requirements

Blueberries are native to North America and so are very hardy. They thrive during the cold of New England winters. They need a lot of sun, and cannot tolerate standing water in the spring. Well drained soil with plenty of organic material is ideal. At the same time, they need adequate water during the growing season.

Here in New England we don’t usually have to worry about having acid soil, although we might have to work a little to get the soil to a 4.5 to 5.5 pH level. A soil test will give you the pH and indicate how you can go about improving it for the blueberries. Fortunately, you can find fertilizers for acid loving plants like Espoma Holly Tone, or other fertilizers designed for rhododendrons or azaleas, at your garden center, or even soil acidifiers. Fertilizing should be done in the spring, and a 2- 4 inch bark mulch is a good idea. Besides conserving moisture, mulch will keep adding organic matter to the soil over time.

Once blueberry bushes are planted they are very easy to maintain. They suffer very little from pests or diseases. They will not need pruning for several years. For myself the only pruning I ever did was removing broken or dead branches in the spring. However, there is a benefit to keeping the interior of the bush more open. Easier picking if nothing else.

Once you are regularly harvesting your berries, your biggest problem will be the birds. I wish I had considered this when I planted my Heath blueberries in a long hedge. It was very difficult to manage a long netting arrangement to protect the berries.  My four Greenfield blueberry bushes are planted in a square that will ultimately be netted in a block that is 10 by 10 feet square.

High Bush Blueberries at Wilder Hill Gardens

High bush blueberries at Wilder Hill Gardens

Benefits of blueberries

There are many benefits for the gardener and the consumer of blueberries. A benefit for the gardener is that, unlike raspberries that need to be picked every day, blueberries will hang on the bush for several days until you can pick them. This means you can harvest a couple of times a week instead of making time every day.

And of course, I have already mentioned how little work it takes to maintain the bushes.

I have not mentioned their beauty, the tiny bell shaped blossoms in the spring and the beautiful red color in the fall. Blueberry bushes are a good alternative to the invasive euonymous, the burning bush.

For the consumer, the eater of blueberries, the first benefit is the berry’s deliciousness. Then there are the many ways it can be prepared, pies, muffins, salads, on your cereal or ice cream, or out of your hand.

Not only is there all that delciousness, there is the fact that blueberries are very good for you. Blueberries are ranked as having one the highest capacities of antioxidants among all fruits and vegetables. Antioxidents battle the free radicals that can attack healthy cells in the body. Cell damage contributes to cancer, heart disease, and decline in the immune system.

Anthrocyanins, the color pigments of red, purple and blue, are powerful antioxidents. They have been connected to lower risks of some cancers, urinary tract health, memory function and age related diseases. Needless to say, other fruits like strawberries and raspberries also contain anthrocyanins, but blueberries are richer.

To get the real health benefit of blueberries it would be necessary to eat about two cups of fresh berries a day, but I feel healthier with every cup of berries I enjoy. Fortunately, fresh blueberries can be bagged up and popped into the freezer very easily and will lose little of their nutritional value. Blueberry crisp gives me a taste of summer all winter long.

Even without growing your own it is easy to find fresh blueberries in our area. Farm stands will be selling them as will farms like the Benson Place in Heath. You can also pick your own low bush berries at the Benson Place, or high bush at Wilder Hill Gardens in Conway.

Sweetheart bouquet for wedding created at Wilder Hill Farm

Sweetheart bouquet for wedding created at Wilder Hill Gardens

When I was picking berries at Wilder Hill Gardens, I also got to admire the flower arrangements that owner Lilian Jackman was creating for her daughter’s wedding. Every single arrangement included a bit of blueberry foliage and fruit. The blueberries were a particular request of the bride and groom. For myself, I consider those blueberries a wish for years of a sweet, healthy and fruitful life together.

Between the Rows   August 6, 2016

Berries for the Birds

High Bush Cranberries

Berries for the Birds – High Bush cranberries

Many of us plant berry bushes, but do you specifically plant berries for the birds? Feeding the birds is a enjoyable activity, but because I have always had cats I have planted high bush cranberries, holly, and cotoneaster instead of putting up bird feeders. However, my first reason for planting these shrubs that produce autumnal berries is because they are beautiful. In addition to the plants I have deliberately put in my landscape I am lucky to have elderberries and grapes already in place.

In the fall many birds are migrating. When we had Stu Watson from the Audubon Society visit our woods and fields to help us make them more bird friendly, he told us that 70 to 90 bird species breed and nest in our area. Many other bird species pass through in the spring and in the fall. Audubon wants to keep common birds common, and providing, food, shelter and water will help do that. I realized there was a very good reason to plant berries for the birds.

I like thinking that our land provides safe and supportive space for birds, even if their needs were not uppermost in my mind when I did my first plantings.

One of the first ornamental shrubs I planted was the highbush cranberry, Viburnam trilobum. I was not thinking of the pretty berries it produces in particular, but only of the flat lacey spring flowers made up of fertile and sterile flowerets. That shrub has now reached a height of about 12 feet or more, and a pretty considerable spread.  Right now it is laden with clusters of beautiful red berries. They are not cranberries at all, but they are edible though my husband might ask me if they are palatable. We don’t actually have any interest in eating them ourselves. They are very sour, but the birds like them especially in the spring when protein rich tree pollen is available as a side dish to help metabolize the berries.

My highbush cranberry also supports a wild Concord grapevine. This vine was here when we bought our house and we hack it back when we have time, but we will never conquer it. Still, these grapes are another source of food. People who are growing grapes for their own consumption have to find ways to protect them from the birds.

The mountain ash, Sorbus americana is native to the United States and is a popular landscape tree. It can reach a height of 30 feet. It produces white flowers in the spring and bears brilliant red-orange berries in the fall. It also has good fall color with foliage turning shades of gold, orange, and even a dark red/maroon. The berries attract thrushes and waxwings.

Another tree that is said to attract cardinals, finches, robins, blue jays, and waxwings in particular is the mulberry. Mulberries are also edible and many people eat them out of hand or make jam. The birds just gobble them up. The one downside to mulberries is that the juice can really stain, which means that they should not be planted near walkways or anywhere people might congregate. No tea parties under the mulberry.

Mulberries have also been called ‘protector trees’ because birds like the berries so much that they gorge themselves on the mulberries and leave cherries and other crops alone. The native red mulberries, Morus rubra, are hardier than the black variety.

Callicarpa berries

Callicarpa dichotomy or Beautyberry

One of the most showstopping shrubs is Callicarpa dichotoma, or beautyberry. This is a small shrub that will grow between two and four feet with about an equal spread. There are small pink flowers in the summer, but in the fall it produces clusters of berries in the most amazing shade of purple. When I first saw this shrub growing on the Bridge of Flowers I thought they must be artificial. The birds have no such thoughts and find them delicious.

Beautyberry is deciduous and hardy to zone 5. It likes full sun but can tolerate part shade. I cannot grow this in Heath, and I think even if I lived in Greenfield I might find a fairly sheltered spot for it. It is a carefree plant with no serious diseases.

I don’t know if I was the last person to know how to pronounce cotoneaster (co-toe-knee-aster NOT cotton-easter) but even before I could pronounce it I knew it was a good groundcover. While I was learning how to pronounce it I also learned that I had one variety (name lost) that produced coral-red flowers in the spring looking very much like ornamental quince flowers. I also learned that birds love the red berries that appear in the fall.

Cotoneaster berries

Cotoneaster

I planted two different cotoneasters too near each other. That is what happens when you are too eager to cover ground. They now grow into each other which fortunately is not unattractive. One hugs the ground and one is a bit more mounding. Both have tiny lustrous dark green leaves. They are undemanding, but in my garden they did take a couple of years to really start spreading. I may be showing my impatience again.

Cotoneasters can grow in full sun or part shade. It is important that the soil be well drained. Established plants can tolerate drought. Happily for me, neither deer nor rabbits show any interest, allowing the birds to make full use of the little red autumn berries.

I also planted Blue Prince and Blue Princess holly bushes. Hollies need male and female plants to fruit. It is not yet Christmas but my Blue Princess is having a productive year. Lots of beautiful berries. The birds like them, but they will leave some for my holiday decorations.

Blue Princess Holly berries

BluePrincess Holly

Between the Rows  October 4, 2014

Elderberries, Chokeberries and Good Health

Elderberry bush by a Heath roadside

Elderberry bush by a Heath roadside

Elderberries and chokeberries are not as beautiful or familiar as spring’s strawberry, but these small dark berries that ripen in late summer pack a nutritional wallop. I’ve know the elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) since childhood, but the chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) is fairly new to me.

Whether you call the elderberry a tree or a bush, it is having a very good year. I seem to see elderberry bushes everywhere I go. I can easily identify the bushes with large flat clusters of creamy flowers that can be as much as eight inches across as I drive along Route 2, or down the wooded roads of Heath. An elderberry that usually grew by the road at the bottom of our hill seemed to disappear but this year it has returned in full bloom.

When we first moved here in 1979 our 83 year old neighbor, Mabel Vreeland gave us a Heath welcome by sending up a bushel basket filled with carrots and parsnips from her own garden, and a bottle of elderberry juice made from the elder by the side of the road. It was definitely not elderberry wine! Mabel was tee total, and she drank this bitter juice for its nutritional and healing benefits. Elderberries are more nutritious than blueberries which are much touted these days for their health giving benefits. In fact, in addition to the nutritional benefit of the berry, every part of the elder bush was used for medicinal purposes in ancient times when our pharmacopeia was more dependent on plants.

I have never been particularly interested in making elderberry juice or wine. Elderberry jelly, made with a substantial addition of sugar, is of more interest to me. Mostly I have just been happy to know that the birds love elderberries, and probably appreciate the nutrition as much as we do.

Elder has a history of being useful in many ways when we used to concoct our own tinctures and remedies. Crushed leaves rubbed on our skin or hat was thought to repel flies, and an infusion of fresh leaves rubbed on skin was considered a mosquito repellent.  With all the moles and voles I have had recently I am tempted to try making an infusion that I could pour down their holes to send them on their way.

Natural dyes for wool fleece and yarn are enjoying a new popularity. Elder bark and roots make a black dye, but the leaves combined with alum will make a green dye. Elderberries and alum will make a violet dye, while combining the berries with salt and alum will create a paler lavender shade. I suspect that it takes a real recipe to make beautiful dyes.

I went looking for local elderberry bushes last fall when I was making a ‘bee box’ that would attract native pollinators. I also used slim bamboo sticks from my daughter’s garden. Native bees will lay their brood in hollow stems, or in stems of plants like elderberry that have a soft pith that the bees can remove.

Harry Potter got his magic wand in a shop, as I recall, but anyone can make their own. Elder wood is the traditional wood for magic wands, and is known to grant wishes. As long as the wish is not a selfish wish.

I confess that I don’t make much practical, or magical, use of elder, but I like having it in the neighborhood because it is a native plant, has lovely flowers and feeds the birds.

Nature Hills Nursery and Raintree Nursery offer a selection of elderberries, Sambucus Canadensis, and Sambucus nigra which is used for more ornamental purposes. Both need another bush for cross pollination to bear fruit. They also sell aronia bushes.

Elderberries have been familiar to me for most of my life, but another new native berry, the aronia berry, sometimes called a chokeberry, is becoming popular for many of the same reasons. It is highly nutritious, and the Washington State University Extension explains that the current interest in aronia berries is because of the “very high levels of anthocyanins and flavonoids, five to ten times higher than cranberry juice, with beneficial nutrients such as antioxidants, polyphenols, minerals and vitamins.” However, like elderberries, it is also bitter and best used in jams or mixed with other fruit juices, or it can be made into wine. Europe is way ahead of the US in finding palatable ways to use aronia berries.

I want to stress that chokeberry is a totally different plant from chokecherry!

Aronias resemble elderberries in other ways as well. The hardy bushes grow up to eight feet tall, produce white blossoms in spring and attract birds to the berries in fall. They also make a good landscape plant because of the spring flowers and brilliant red autumn color. Neither bush has insect or disease problems making them low maintenance. Aronias can tolerate a damp site, and are suitable for rain gardens.

Are elderberries or chokeberries a possibility for your edible, ornamental or native garden?

Between the Rows   July 19, 2014

Mary Lyon Church Garden Tour – July 19, 2014

Waterlily Pond and Bog Garden

Waterlily Pond and Bog Garden

Garden tour season continues! The MaryLyonChurch garden tour is scheduled for Saturday, July 19 from 10 am to 4 pm and includes seven gardens in Buckland and two gardens in West Hawley.

Shirley Scott and Joe Giard

Shirley Scott and Joe Giard

I had the good fortune to visit Shirley Scott and Joe Giard’s garden ahead of time. This has one of the most challenging sites I have ever seen for a garden. The main challenge of her site has been the very steep slope to the left of the house. This grassy slope with its interruptions of ledge has become the SlopeGarden with a series of beds of strong growing plants like daylilies, tall New England asters and miscanthus grasses. Stairs have been cut into the hill, but visitors will probably prefer to begin by strolling through the gardens on the shady side of the house.

Scott says the garden has fulfilled her childhood dream of having waterlilies, and her vision of a garden filled with wildlife.

That wildlife needed a very close look when she was giving me a tour of the Welcoming Bed at the entry to the property. This bed is filled with chrysanthemums, tiger lilies, foxglove, yellow loosestrife (not the invasive purple variety) iris, black eyed susans, peonies and sedums. There is also milkweed, blooming at this time of the year and providing nectar for many butterflies that were dancing through the garden.

At one point we stopped because we saw some filmy fibers on one of the tall sedum plants. A very close look showed that this film enclosed hundreds of very tiny baby spiders. A closer look showed us that a large spider was on a nearby leaf. Could it have been the mama?  We’ll never know, but it was a very exciting moment when we could watch a certain kind of wild life being lived in the garden.

Of course, Scott explained they have larger wild life enjoying the garden, all manner of birds, bears, bobcats, coyotes and turtles.

If you walk first through the shade gardens you’ll come to the newest of Scott’s three water gardens, a kind of shallow stepped fountain on a gentle slope. This area is where Scott places her bird feeders. The large trees provide shelter for the birds, and the sound of water attracts them. She explained the water feature is still being refined, and she reminded me that the garden is all a work in progress. This is a concept that she does not need to explain to any experienced gardener.

In back of the house and outbuildings is Giard’s fenced vegetable garden where he has made unique use of a TV antenna and automobile tires. It always pays to look around the house and garage before you go out and buy new garden equipment.

Waterlily pond closeup

Waterlily pond closeup

The water gardens are one of the most inspiring aspects of this garden, each one different. Soon you come to the first one she designed and made by herself. This small pool is surrounded by stones that can accommodate a small metal table and chairs.  Here she can enjoy the sound of the water, and a view of her waterlilies. “When it was first installed I sat there and thought I had died and gone to heaven,” she said.

It is also from this spot at the bottom of the SlopeGarden that you can look into the faces of all those blooming sun lovers.

The second water garden is much larger and more ambitious with beautiful stone work. Giard brought all the Goshen stone down the slope to a sunny flat site. ChapleyGardens in Deerfield installed this garden with a recirculation pump and filtration system. In addition to the musical waterfall, and more waterlilies, there is an adjoining bog garden, and a collection of daylilies which will be in full bloom at the time of the tour.

This large garden is artfully arranged so that different views can be admired from various vantage points. Perhaps the most delightful view is from the small shaded gazebo at the top of the slope which gives a panoramic view of the Welcoming Garden, the Slope Garden beds and the large Water Garden.

I love visiting other gardens because I love seeing the ways a gardener’s dreams take form. Scott is an “Ashfield girl” and she has brought favorite plants from her mother, grandmother and friends into the garden where her childhood dream of a waterlily pond has become a reality. This is a garden of memory and dreams.

Scott’s garden is just one of the beautiful gardens on the tour which include a secret garden, a labyrinth, a farm, and gardens around historic buildings in Buckland. A farm, and a multi-faceted array of perennial gardens are located in West Hawley. The tour begins at 10 am and ends at 4 pm. Tickets are available by calling Cyndie Stetson at 339-4231 or Lisa Turner at 339-4319. Tickets will also be on sale at the MaryLyonChurch on the morning of July 19. Tickets are $10 and there will be a luncheon served at the MaryLyonChurch for an additional $10. Reservations should be made ahead of time for the lunch. All profits benefit the Church.

Between the Rows   July 12, 2014

 

Dear Friend and Gardener – July 17, 2014

New bean rows

New bean rows

Dear Friend and Gardener: Where do I begin? With these new bean rows that I put in early this morning? Contender bush beans that promise to be ready for harvest in 50 days, on August 31?  We’ll see.  But, they should be bearing well before frost. The rest of this bed separated by a pile of mulch, and two hills of Lakota squash which are coming along very slowly. We have had fairly good rainfall, but we have not yet had many hot days.

Milkweed and peas

Milkweed and peas

Or I  could begin today’s story with this milkweed row – er – I mean sugar snap pea row – er – I don’t know what row. Here is the question. Do I  give up the pea harvest in the hopes of welcoming hungry monarchs?  We used to have clouds of monarchs in August feeding on a mint field. They do like mint a lot. But of course, they need the milk weed for their caterpillar babies.  We rarely see monarchs any more, but there seem to be lots of other butterflies that like milkweed so it stays. I may get a few peas. What would you do?

Summer squash

Summer squash

This squash hill is doing better than Lakota. I can’t actually remember if this is the zucchini or crookneck yellow squash. The other hill is not doing well either. I really do think we need more heat.  This squash is planted at the end of a bed of cippolini onions. They are doing fine.

Garlic and lettuce

Garlic and lettuce

The garlic has done well and should be ready for harvest soon. I did cut off all the scapes, cut them into tiny pieces, put them on a cookie sheet and froze them for an hour before putting them into freezer bags. I can use these in cooking in lieu of a chopped up garlic clove. Using the scapes this way doubles the garlic harvest.  On the other side of the row is lettuce and self seeded cilantro. I pulled out the last of a patch of spinach this morning.

tomato plant

tomato plant

On May 20 I planted four substantial tomato plants that I bought at Andrews Greenhouse in Amherst. I think this one is Mortgage Lifter, an heirloom. All of them are looking good.

Grafted Jung tomato

Grafted Jung tomato

This is a grafted tomato sent to me by Jung seeds. It looked nearly dead when it arrived. It has perked up substantially, but it doesn’t look very enthusiastic. It is growing in the same bed as two of the other tomatoes so there is no difference in the soil and the garden is in  the sun from 10:30 am on.

Grafted pepper from Jung

Grafted pepper from Jung

Jung also sent a grafted pepper to test. It looks much happier than the tomato and they are growing side by side.

Red raspberries

Red raspberries

Of course, there is more to the edible garden than veggies.  Red raspberries are just starting to ripen. I got these from Nourse Farms, an excellent local nursery.

Blueberry bushes

Blueberry bushes

The blueberries will be ready to start harvesting by the first of August.  Blueberries and raspberries are the easiest and most delicious crops to grow.

We have been eating our own lettuce for the past month, and spinach, too. It turned out I really didn’t know how to handle rapini, so most of that early crop went into the compost bin. I do get to use our own fresh herbs – chives, sage, basil, parsley, cilantro, rosemary, tarragon, oregano and thyme, all of which can be harvested now and into the fall. If you are a cook, you really can save a lot of money by planting an herb garden for using fresh, or drying yourself. Many herbs are perennial, but even if you buy a six pack of basil you’ll have enough for the summer and to freeze for little more than the price of one bunch at the store. One gardener told me she chooses which crops to plant depending on how expensive it is to buy. Berries are expensive, so are bunches of herbs, or garlic. Something to keep in mind.

Except for the herbs and lettuce, I haven’t been harvesting much so far, but broccoli, cauliflower, pole beans and those squash plants are slowly coming along.

Brussels sprouts

Brussels sprouts

Do you think I allowed enough space between my Brussels sprouts? They are growing in a specially fertilized bed – lots of compost – after last year’s failure.

How is your vegetable garden coming?

I want to thank Dee Nash for hosting Dear Friend and Gardener, a wonderful virtual garden club where we can share our tips, triumphs, and those less than triumphant moments.

Autumn Crocus and Other September Surprises

Autumn crocus

I was surprised to find these autumn crocus in bloom right out in front of the house next to the wisteria trunk. And under overgrown lemon balm. I keep promising to move them to a better spot, but invisible as  they are in July when that move should occur it never happens. Maybe next year.

Montauk daisy

Since I have not been out to weed or care for the garden in what seems like weeks, there were other surprises like the first bloom on this Montauk  daisy. A couple of weeks ago I was visiting a friend in Connecticut and her Montague daisy wasn’t blooming either. Isn’t it late for this to just be starting?

Cotoneaster berries

Another surprise was the berries on this cotoneaster, name lost, that grows in a tangle with a more ground-hugging cotoneaster. This is what happens when you plant something with no idea how it will spread.

Blue Princess holly berries

Last year there were almost no holly berries, but look at this year. What a happy surprise.

Lisianthus

The other happy surprise has been the survival of pale pink lisianthus. My photo doesn’t begin to do it justice. Lisianthus is not easy to start from seed, and I bought a six pack of tiny seedlings. It took a long time for them to get growing and definitely could have done better growing in a container. Maybe next year.

ADDENDA – I want to thank Julie, a close reader, who corrected me. I have MONTAUK daisies growing in my garden. I appreciate all such corrections and clarifications.

 

Walk on the Wildside with Sue Bridge

Wildside Cottage

How would you plan your retirement if you had already received a degree from Wellesley College, earned a further degree in Russian and Middle Eastern Studies, hitchhiked to Morocco, lived in Paris, worked for the United Nations, as well as in the cable TV world, and for the Christian Science Monitor newspaper?

Sue Bridge, with the urging of a Northampton friend, bought eight acres of hilly land in Conway. For the past seven years her retirement project has been to create a sustainable, self-sufficient home and landscape where she can live off the grid. The house she designed is energy efficient, well insulated with electricity and hot water provided by solar panels. It is also beautiful, inside and out. The sunny main living space is comprised of a kitchen, dining and living areas. French doors form the south wall of the living area which opens out onto a stone terrace with low stone walls overlooking terraced gardens and across to the hills beyond. The house is small but there is no sense of being cramped, only of spacious comfort.

For help in creating a sustainable landscape she turned to Jono Neiger of the Regenerative Design Group. Neiger and his group are proponents of permaculture systems. Bridge confesses she didn’t really understand what that meant when she began. Neiger came several times to visit; he’d walk around, make notes and walk around some more. Finally, after he had walked the land for several months and not a single spade of soil had been moved, she asked him if his crews were very busy. Did he have any idea when work would begin?

Then Neiger had to explain that work was well-begun. He had been building a scientific portrait of the land, how the sun, wind and water moved across the hill, and over the season.

It was not until Neiger invited Bridge to his own garden that she began to understand what permaculture is. On the appointed day she arrived at his house and garden before he did and was very confused. “Where’s the garden,” she asked when he drove up. The truth is that permaculture gardens do not look like the beautifully arranged flower gardens or orderly vegetable gardens that most of us are familiar with.

I was in the same position she had been with Neiger. I could see why she had named her place Wildside. I needed to have the garden explained. “This is not traditional farmland, but it is incredibly productive,” she said as we walked across the broad terraces  carved into the hillside. “Terraces are a permaculture trademark.”

The terraces help keep the soil from eroding, even in severe storms. “We had 17 inches of rain during Irene, but there was no erosion,” Bridge said.

To the east the living room terrace is an herb garden. One of Bridge’s specialties is five-herb tea. The terraces on the south hillside are first planted to vegetables that are harvested during the summer, the next terrace on the slope is for perennial vegetables like sea kale and Jerusalem artichokes, and the third is for pollinators, bee balm, garlic chives and other plants that attract pollinators.

Productive sweet potato vines in greenhouse

At the bottom of the slope is a small greenhouse where she grows sweet potatoes in the ground, harvesting more than 100 pounds of nutritious sweet potatoes, as well as ginger, and turmeric plants good for the digestion, and pain relief. The garden outside the greenhouse is mostly storage vegetables, beets, carrots, potatoes and squash. Of course, if you raise enough of this kind of vegetable you need a root cellar and Bridge has built a small one behind her house. Other edible crops are canned or dried.

Wildside rice

We walked past the path to the orchard with apple, peach, pear and plum trees and to the rice paddy in the Wet Meadow. It took heavy digging, but Bridge is growing rice!

The land rises slightly beyond the Wet Meadow. We walked through a stand of overgrown Christmas trees, planted by the former owners, then came into a sunny meadow where nut trees, including chestnut have been planted. The surrounding evergreens help protect them from high winter winds.

Mountain mint with Monarch butterfly

Bridge said she learned that eastern slopes are ideal for fruit trees and berries. On her eastern slope she grows persimmons, pawpaws, quince, Asian pears, shadbush, blueberries, elderberries, and black chokeberries. http://www.millernurseries.com/ sell chokeberriess. Chokeberries are not very sweet, but they are extremely nutritious and do make good jelly. Bridge has also tucked mountain mint and other plants for pollinators everywhere on this east slope.

I was fascinated by the “fertility bed” a long row of comfrey, bush clover and switch grass which Bridge cuts down twice a year and uses as mulch or compost.

Bridge has come to love Conway where she has found a great community with lots of grass roots action. “This is a friendly environment for me,” she said.

A broad community has found Sue Bridge to be very friendly, and inspirational. Her gardens have become a model of sustainable food production. Students from Wellesley and Smith Colleges, the Conway School of Landscape Design, Greenfield Community College and others come to see what she is doing and learn about the science behind what she is doing.

When I asked if she had intended to launch such an educational project in her retirement she said no. “I did not intend, but I do not resist.”    

Between the Rows   August 24, 2013

A Family of Gardeners – the Hollisters

 

Kevin Hollister

Kevin Hollister and his family live across the lawn and through the woods right next door to his sister Sarah Hollister. Together they share multiple gardens. Sarah has lots of vegetables for the two families, many of them growing on utilitarian or whimsical structures. Kevin hosts Tomato World and Blueberry World, dozens of trellised tomatoes of every sort, and a large patch of blueberry bushes, bent with the weight of the fruit and covered with old tobacco netting.

Both of them have beautiful flowers and both of them credit their parents, John and Amy Hollister, with instilling a love of gardening in them, and the other three daughters, from the time they were tots. Both of them have earned their livings by working with plants and gardens.

Sarah Hollister has a garden business that includes design, installation and some maintenance of gardens. Her own garden was begun by her parents over 60 years ago and has beautiful soil which she continues to enrich with an annual digging in of fall leaves and summer mulches. Because the garden is so large she also adds an occasional truckload of compost. The garden combines vegetables and flowers, with a riotous patch of old Latham raspberries all along one side of the garden still producing.

Sarah loves to create ‘twig’ structures and has built several to hold and display flowering vines. This past spring she gave a workshop on making these attractive structures at the Master Gardener’s Spring Symposium.

Sarah Hollister

While she says she is “all about taste,” some of the many vegetables she grows are handsome. There is Falstaff, a purple Brussels sprouts from Territorial Seeds, and a handsome Savoy cabbage that she plants because she likes the texture. She is also about finding unusual work-saving vegetables like the semi-bush Kakai pumpkin that produces hull-less seeds. You can just scoop them out of the ripe pumpkin and roast them and eat them for a delicious and healthy treat.

Flowers in the vegetable garden include sweet peas, self-seeding delphiniums, veronicas and glowing red crocosmia. Sarah shares many of these plants at the regular spring plant sale at St. James church in Greenfield.

After touring Sarah’s garden, we went through the little woodland that includes Chinese chestnuts and shagbark hickory trees to Kevin’s..

Kevin’s garden has suffered from the wooly adelgid so the hemlocks have had to come down, but there are so many other notable plants like the weeping cherry that he has carefully and artfully been pruning for 23 years. This tree is his particular joy.

Kevin Hollisster with weeping cherry

Kevin studied landscaping at the Stockbridge School at the University of Massachusetts and he still remembers the 200 plants, with full Latin names, that they had to learn for plant identification.

But his work in the garden began even before attending UMass. His first job was mowing lawns for Ally Newcomb’s landscaping business when he was 15, and later for Jim Stewart. “Both men taught me how to work hard and to enjoy it,” he said.

Later he worked for the Greenfield Garden Center, where he found he could make helpful suggestions to gardeners when they came in to buy plants. “Landscaping is a form of art and I have an eye. I could recommend better plants for their needs,” he said. But I know it takes more than ‘an eye,” it takes deep understanding of plants and what they need, as well as an understanding of gardeners and what they are able to give at that stage of their gardening life.

About 25 years ago Kevin was injured on a job site and broke his lower back. Having to use a wheelchair has not stopped his horticultural career. “Plants are my life,” he said. He has a horticultural teaching degree and he currently works at the Franklin County Technical School where he is able to help in other departments, besides horticulture.

In his own garden he sometimes uses his power wheelbarrow which is strong enough to pull Kevin in his wheelchair through the garden.

One big attractions of Kevin’s garden is Tomato World with a couple of dozen plants of 10 varieties, with many heirlooms, including Amish Paste, Cherokee Purple, Kellogg’s Breakfast, Pink Berkeley Tie Dye and Italian Heirloom.

 

Hollister tomato trellis system

I was fascinated by the tomato trellising system. The trellis consists of wood supports at either end with a cross bar across the top. From the cross bar strings are attached every two or three feet and hang down and held in place by a stake in the soil. Tomato plants are placed at the bottom of each string which has a little give to it. As the tomato grows Sarah twines the tender pliable stem around the string. This allows her to see the plant as it grows so she can remove the suckers. The benefit is keeping the plant pruned and providing good air circulation. The tomatoes get plenty of sun and are easy to harvest.

What do they do with all those tomatoes? Lots of canning. Kevin said he and his son Harry do their share. They also like to can dill pickles.

Next to Tomato World is Blueberry World, a collection of high bush blueberries, protected from the birds with tobacco netting draped over a wooden frame. The bushes were bent low with a bumper crop of blueberries this year.

What is striking about Kevin and Sarah is their enthusiasm, the joy they find in the garden and the pleasure they take in sharing what they have learned and enjoyed.

Hollister structure

Between the Rows   August 10, 2013

Black Raspberries – Thorny and Thirsty

Black raspberries

Black Raspberries

Black raspberries are delicious and make great jam, but they will take more care than blueberries or red raspberries.

To begin, black raspberries, sometimes called blackcaps, need a site that gets full sun, and has access to watering. In my own experience I have found that regular watering, two inches a week, is essential. I lost most of my first two crops because of the lack of watering. The berries were small and almost instantly dried up. I feared disease, but all they needed was regular and generous watering. This is actually a problem for me because my water comes from a well, and in a dry season like last year, there is not much water to spare, even for the edible gardens.

Black raspberries need the same type of soil as red raspberries, well drained and rich in organic matter. Digging in compost and some lime when preparing to plant is good practice. I did not test my soil before planting my black raspberries, but they do best with a higher pH than blueberries. I have seen recommendations between 5.6 to 6.8.

Black raspberries have much longer and thornier canes than red raspberries. This means they should be planted farther apart than the reds. Unfortunately, I skipped over that bit of information in the excellent planting directions provided by Nourse Farms where I got my plants. Instead of spacing them 2 feet apart,  I planted them about 16 inches apart. The plants are doing fine, except that they are crowded, which makes harvesting a little more difficult, especially when you consider how thorny the canes are.

It is especially important to trellis these wilder and thornier canes. The first year canes, primocanes,  get very long and require summer pruning. First they should be cut back to about 36 inches, and the lateral branches that develop should also be cut back later in the summer to provide a larger harvest.

If the canes are not cut back they will grow so long that they will touch the ground and take root. This is fine if you are interested in propagating more plants. Those newly rooted plants are easily cut from the original cane, dug up and replanted. My first summer with the black raspberries, I watched them grow tall, then gracefully bend until the tip touched the ground and began to root and produce a new plant. Most of them seemed to be bending in one direction and I had visions of the bushes marching across the garden from year to year. This must not happen. Back to the directions. I seem to be one of those people who has to make mistakes before really understanding what I should be doing. Luckily for me plants are usually very forgiving.

Like the red raspberries, the canes will die back after bearing and should be removed. At the same time you can also prune out any spindly canes, or other canes to keep the plant manageable. These are hardy plants, and I have not had any trouble with disease or pests. Many people have trouble with Japanese beetles on their raspberries, but since putting down Milky Spore disease powder years ago I have had no trouble. It is only the amount of pruning, that was a surprise to me, that makes them a little more work.

I have mulched with cardboard and woodchips on either side of my single black raspberry row. I fertilize with compost in the row, and also sprinkle a little lime in the fall to keep the pH level up. I cannot emphasize enough how important irrigation is.

Ribes – Currants and Gooseberries

A berry I have longed to grow is the currant. Red currants are a beautiful clear red berry that makes a wonderful jelly, and black currant juice is essential for making that elegant drink Kir Royale. To be accurate, Kir Royale is made with champagne and cassis, the cassis being a black currant liqueur.  Since I cannot drink alcohol I make a faux Kir Royale with Sprite and black currant juice which is sometimes sold as Ribena. It is a beautiful drink, with cassis or Ribena.

Unfortunately, growing currants and gooseberries which are all members of the ribes family, are forbidden by state law to us in most of Franklin County, as well as to over 100 other towns in Massachusetts. The reason is white pine blister rust.

White pine blister rust is a disease that requires two hosts to complete its lifecycle. Ribes fruits are the other host. Because we have a mixed woodland that includes white pine which we have had logged,  I am very aware of the danger to our trees. As much as I love currants, I am content to continue buying jars of currant jelly and bottles of Ribena.

It seems that more and more people are interested in growing some of their own food. The idea of permanent food plants is certainly very appealing. Fruit trees and berries fall into this category, berries being by far the easiest to manage. I also like having berries in the freezer for a really quick and healthy fruit crisp for dessert.

Between the Rows   August 3, 2013