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Dear Friend and Gardener

Late Bloomer by Jan Coppola Bills

Late Bloomer by Jan Bills

Late Bloomer by Jan Coppola Bills

Several years ago a friend asked me to give her advice about her garden which she said was out of control and too much work. When I visited I could see an immediate problem; her paths were too narrow. Wider paths would make it possible to walk through the garden side by side with a friend, and even provide better working space when it was time to weed or divide the collection of lovely perennials that comprised her garden.

She could see the wisdom in my suggestion; however when I asked if she had considered shrubs, she threw up her hands in horror and cried, “I’m too young for shrubs!”

Shrubs have been my response to the desire for a low maintenance garden, one that would be different from my gardens in Heath, but would still give me beauty and pleasure.

When Jan Coppola Bills sat down to write her book Late Bloomer: How to Garden with Comfort, Ease and Simplicity in the Second Half of Life (St. Lynn’s Press $18.95) she knew there were more and more gardeners who were in my position – loving gardening but without quite the stamina they had.

Happily for me and other readers of this book with its useful and beautiful illustrations Bills has more that one answer to creating a low maintenance garden.

Late Bloomer is divided into short illustrated chapters that begin with Simplicity and Sustainability and goes on to Garden Styling. Orderly Chaos, and Veggies, Fruit and Herbs and more. All the information and suggestions are useful to gardeners at any stage of their gardening career, but particularly valuable when a gardener sees the need to reduce the heavy labor required in their garden.

Bills has a chapter devoted to different ways to handle weeds. She includes a section on what I call lasagna gardening which calls for lots of cardboard. One version of this begins with digging up the sod, flipping the  sods, grass to grass, then laying on the cardboard and topping it with soil for planting and mulch. She also lays lots of cardboard right on the lawn where a new bed is needed and then covers the cardboard with a few inches of mulch. Then she says wait! Wait for the cardboard to decompose for a few months before you begin planting.

South Border lasagna bed June 2015

South Border lasagna bed June 2015

When we moved to Greenfield and discovered how heavy and wet our clay soil was I could not wait. I needed to plant right away. I began my own version of cardboard gardening. I worked in one section of a proposed bed at a time. I collected all the cardboard I could (thank you, Manny’s) and ordered yards and yards of compost and mulch from Martin’s Compost Farm. First we skinned off as much grass as possible with a weed wacker and watered that section. I then planted the shrubs I had bought, hydrangeas, lilacs, roses and viburnams. I dug big planting holes, and used a good measure of compost when planting. I gave all the newly planted shrubs a good watering and then laid out one or two layers of cardboard around the shrubs, filling that section of the bed. The cardboard also got a good watering before it was covered with several inches of soil and mulch and which were watered again.

I feel all that watering is essential because it helps the decomposition process get started, as well as providing moisture for the newly planted shrubs. Once the beds were created I planted perennials and groundcovers between the shrubs in the soil and mulch.

South border lasagna bed June 2016

South Border lasagna bed June 2016 – new shrubs thriving

Those first plantings were put in in June 2015 and I am happy to say that the shrubs and perennials have done splendidly even though we did have such a dry summer and fall. I give a large measure of credit to the rich compost-soil mixture and compost- mulch mixture I got from Martin’s Farm.

With all her advice, Bills does not forget the issues that are important to all gardeners, the desire to support our pollinators and butterflies who have been threatened by the use of many insecticides and herbicides and the benefits of using of using native plants in the garden. Native plants, trees, shrubs and flowers, provide the specific food that pollinators need to survive and propagate.

As we have created our new Greenfield garden we had two main goals, to choose plants that were tolerant of wet soil (right plant in the right spot) and that were native cultivars supporting some of the 300 plus species of native bees, butterflies and many other pollinators. One of the useful lists Bills provides is a list of plants that will support pollinators one way or another. Dill does not provide nectar or pollen for butterflies, but it does supply food for the swallowtail butterfly caterpillar. Once I realized the importance of supporting all stages of the butterflies I was happy to plant extra dill and parsley to share.

Bills’ final encouraging words are to resist the desire for perfection.  “I believe when you take unrealistic expectations out of gardening, new possibilities emerge.”

At my house my husband and I are apt to finish the project of the day with a sigh and the statement that what we have accomplished is “perfect enough.” We often remind each other that the weavers of beautiful Persian rugs always put a deliberate error in the design. According to Islam only Allah can make something perfect, and to make something perfect is an offense to Allah.

There is not much chance my garden will be perfect, but I will care for it, love it, and share it. That’s enough perfection for me.

Between the  Rows   November 26, 2016

Vermiculture in Schools – and Beyond

First grader Ben caring for the worm bin in his classroom

First Grader Ben knows that worm bedding needs to be kept moist

Verrmiculture is worm farming. Worms are the gardener’s friend. They eat kitchen waste and turn it into valuable fertilizer called vermicompost. You too can be a vermiculturist, one who practices vermiculture and makes vermicompost, and you cannot begin too soon.

When I visited Kate Bailey’s first grade last week to read to them, they were all excited and told me they had a thousand new pets in the classroom and could I guess what they were. I could not. Gleefully they showed me their worm bin and told me all kinds of worm facts.

The children knew that the worms that live and work in bins are not the same kind of worms that you find in the garden. They have red wigglers, Eisenia fetida, in their bin. A single worm is both female and male, but it still needs to mate with another worm. The children talked about the ‘vest’ that the worm has around its middle. Adults know the proper name is the clitellum. In a sense you could say two worms still have to hug to exchange sperm and fertilize the eggs. Then the ‘vest’ with the fertilized eggs ultimately slips off the worm in a cocoon. The baby worms will hatch in approximately three weeks. Usually only two or three baby worms will come out of each cocoon. You can see we had a very technical and scientific conversation.

With the help of a three year grant from the Mass Department of Environmental Protection Amy Donovan of the Franklin County Solid Waste Management District is in the process of bringing worm bins and coupons to buy the worms to the schools in our district. “Having worms in class is a chance to get up close and personal to compost. They’ll see it is not yucky or smelly – just fascinating,” she said when we talked on the phone.

Donovan has been working with worms and school children for some years. “Worm bins are a perfect small scale compost system for schools because students can see the compost system working. They can observe materials every day or two and see the changes. It also works for the curriculum in three ways. The worms provide a science experiment, classroom pets, and practical indoor composting,” she said.

There are good support resources for the vermicomposting program in the schools including The Green Team (www.thegreenteam.org), an environmental club sponsored by the Mass DEP.

I had my own worm bin when we lived in Heath. It was simply an opaque bin I bought at Home Depot.  It was set up for visiting grandsons when they were about 8 or 9 years old. We gained a lot of basic information about worms together.

Each worm bin needs dampened shredded newspaper, never plain white computer paper, to make bedding for the worms.  Worms breathe through their skin and that is why they need a damp environment. They do not need soil.

Food scraps, fruit and vegetables, bread, oatmeal, and egg shells as well other foods, including moldy bits from the back shelf of the refrigerator, are suitable for the bin. Actually, smashed up egg shells are very good for worms because they supply calcium that they need for reproduction. Food does not need to be ground up, but smaller pieces will break down more quickly. Meat and bones and dairy products should not go into the bin because they will rot and smell bad.

We did not just dump our scraps in one spot, but put enough for one week (as we tried to judge) in one spot, and then put scraps in another spot the following week. We also fluffed up the shredded bedding from time to time so it didn’t pack down. Over the course of the year I would also add more damp bedding. When the boys left I kept up the routines myself.

Once a year I cleaned out the bin and harvested the castings otherwise known as worm manure or vermicompost for my garden. I dumped out my bin onto a tarp outside on a sunny day. Worms do not like the light so they dive down to the bottom of the pile. While I am waiting for the worms to leave the top layer I wash the bin and fill it with more damp bedding, and I always added a couple of handfuls of the vermicompost, so the worms would know they were still at home.

Norm Hirschfeld and Marsha Stone, veteran worm farmers

Norm Hirschfeld and Marsha Stone, veteran worm farmers

Norm Hirschfeld and Marsha Stone have been composting for over 20 years. They did have a couple of smelly and buggy adventures when they first began, but they now keep their sweet smelling Can O Worms vermicomposter in their basement. Can O Worms is just one of the worm bins that you can buy. The bins come with full information about the bins and handling worms. They also are designed to collect compost tea as well as regular compost.

Compost tea is the liquid exudation created by the water in the kitchen waste, as well as being produced by the worms themselves and other microorganisms in the waste. Worm bins are usually equipped with a reservoir to collect this rich fertilizer, and a spigot. Compost tea can be used in the garden or for mixing with water and used on houseplants.

Exudate  from Norm's worm bin

Exudate from Norm’s worm bin

The bible of vermicomposting is Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof. It gives directions for making your own worm bin, and answers every question you might have about worms, how the worm population will increase, what kinds of problems might arise and how to fix them, and the composting process.

It might be time to set up a new worm bin in my new house.

Between the Rows   November 19, 2016

Vegetables for Thanksgiving

Winter Farmers Market

Winter Farmers Market

Roast turkey is the iconic symbol of Thanksgiving, but in reality it is the vegetables that fill the groaning board. Sweet potatoes, with or without marshmallows, mashed potatoes, creamed onions, and roasted or mashed winter squash, are essential. I’ve been known to make the elaborate maquechoux, a mélange that includes corn, bacon, scallions, red bell peppers, tomato and thyme and basil. My daughter Betsy is now responsible for a mélange of white and sweet potatoes, beets, squash and onions which are all roasted together.

When faced with all this delicious bounty I can’t help wondering how it made its way to my 21st century feast.

We all know that corn is native to the western hemisphere. It travelled in many directions. Christopher Columbus found it in Cuba in 1492 and brought it to France and Italy and all of southeastern Europe as well as to northern Africa. Meantime, it also travelled west to islands in the Pacific and on to China. Certainly the Pilgrims of 1620 were happy that the Wampanoags included corn in their diet. It was the caches of stored corn that they had put by and that the Pilgrims found that helped some of them get through that first winter.

The corn that we have today is quite different from the corn grown in the 1600s, but it has always been evolving because the Natives were attentive to their seed, and their seed choosing and gathering. The Hopi tribe developed a blue corn that that has more protein than regular corn. I’m not sure how blue corn made its way to Deerfield, but by 1836 it was growing in William Stoddard Williams very large garden.

Potatoes originated in South America thousands of years ago. In 1532 it was the Spanish conquistadors in Peru who began to use potatoes, especially as rations on ships returning to Spain. Once in Spain the potato did spread throughout Europe but it was only considered fodder for animals. However people did eat potatoes when desperate.

Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was a pharmacist who in 1754 was jailed during the Seven Years War with Prussia. He was only given potatoes to eat but he remained healthy, which made him realize what a valuable food crop potatoes were. His efforts to get poor people to eat them were not effective until he planned an inducement. He had King Louis XVI give him a piece of land outside Paris and planted a potato field. He had that field guarded day and night, making people believe the crop was very valuable. Then when the potatoes were ready for harvest he gave the guards the night off. Many of the potatoes were stolen and their reputation began to change.

The benefits of potatoes were apparent to educated people and rulers of European countries supported their cultivation.

Potatoes have been known to stave off starvation when grain crops failed. The advantage to potatoes is that they grow underground and are not susceptible to the winds and storms that knock down fields of grain making them useless. Nowadays potatoes are considered one of the most nutritious foods you can eat, as long as you don’t deep fry them, or load them up with butter or sour cream.

Sweet potatoes

Sweet potatoes

Spanish conquistadors also discovered sweet potatoes in South America. They took them back to Spain where they rapidly spread across Europe. White potatoes of the nightshade family may have been considered only fit for pigs, but the sweet potatoes of the morning glory family were considered a treat and delight. No one had to be urged to eat sweet potatoes which are even richer in nutrients than white potatoes.

Winter squash is another vegetable that originated in the South and Central America. It is versatile and can be roasted, used in soups, or mashed into breads. It is another extremely nutritious vegetable, a good source of vitamin A, C, and E. It travelled up into North America and was an important food for Massachusetts Natives. That was fortunate for the Pilgrims who then learned about them from the Wampanoags who included them in their healthy diet.

A necessity of the Thanksgiving feast is the onion, creamed, or cut up to add savor to soup or turkey stuffing. There are no fossilized onions to help the record but it is thought that onions had been cultivated in the Middle East for 5000 years or more. It is safe to say that over 1000 years ago onions were a staple of European diets. The Pilgrims brought onion seeds with them on the Mayflower, but when they started dealing with the Natives they saw that they had been using wild onions in their meals.

In a Smithsonian article Kathleen Wall, a foodways culinarian at Plimoth Plantation, says that it is unlikely that turkey was on the menu at the first Thanksgiving. The written record mostly describes the meat that went on the table, including goose and duck, possibly swan and passenger pigeon. The small birds could have been stuffed with onions and herbs. The Wampanoags brought five deer, possibly fish, lobster and clams as well. The feast lasted for three days.

Most of us will not go hunting for our Thanksgiving feast. And the feast will not last for three days. But we can all be grateful for the rich land that we live on here in western Massachusetts and the developments in vegetables and fruits that make even our every day meals a veritable feast.

Between the Rows   November 12, 2016

Wild Rose Flower Farm

Danielle Smith at her Wild Rose Flower Farm both at the Farmers Market

Danielle Smith at her Wild Rose Flower Farm booth at the Farmers Market

While shopping at the Greenfield Farmers Market last year I met Danielle Smith at her Wild Rose Flower Farm booth. I found the name of her farm, Wild Rose, irresistible, of course, and she was always surrounded by a bounty of lovely spring bulbs, and later an array of dahlias, zinnias, sunflowers, delphiniums and all manner of other annuals. At the Winter Market I bought a wonderful wreath to hang on our new front door.

All this summer we tried to set a date to talk about her gardens, but we never pulled it off until the fresh flowers were pretty well frosted and she was concentrating on her dried flowers which are equally a delight. We finally got to meet in her studio where she puts together bouquets and arrangements for weddings and other events, as well as for farmer’s markets and other outlets like food coops.

Wild Rose Flower Farm studio

Wild Rose Flower Farm studio

Looking at the bright sunny room with dried flowers hanging from racks and the floor covered with containers of dried flower bouquets waiting for the final Farmers Market of the year, it was hard to imagine that she had ever turned her face away from the color and excitement of the floral world, but she said she came late to flowers.

After graduating with an environmental degree from the New College of Florida in Sarasota, Smith began her career on organic vegetable farms. “I really thought it was not okay to love flowers. I disdained all frivolity,” she said. Even after a stint working on a flower farm Smith had to fight what she came to call her internalized misogyny and kept “my attraction to all things bright and soft and frilly to myself like a shameful secret.”  It took years to acquiesce to her delight in flowers.

That acknowledgement led her to the founding of Wild Rose Flower Farm. She rents land in Florence, not far from the Art and IndustryBuilding where she has her studio. Although she was ready to give up her total devotion to organic vegetables and embrace “the magical and miraculous, sensual and seasonal, riotously colorful and abundant world of flowers,” she was not willing to give up her principles about growing plants organically and healthily.

Like any farmer Smith works in her field, weeding and pruning, and then harvesting on early summer mornings. She then brings her harvest to her studio where she has a cooler. On a really hot morning she may have to make more than one trip so that the blossoms don’t have time to wilt. Once the flowers have cooled and drunk their fill she can put them together into arrangements.

Danielle Smith of Wild Rose Flower farm

Danielle Smith of Wild Rose Flower Farm

Smith is an organic flower gardener because she is thinking about the larger need to grow all plants, not only edibles, without poisons. She is thinking about protecting bees and other pollinators, about protecting the water systems, and about protecting workers from the effects of dangerous chemicals on flower farms operating on a much larger scale than acre of land she rents near her studio.

I first became aware of the threats Smith works against when I read Amy Stewart’s book Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful in the Flower Business. Many flowers on florists’s shelves come from half way around the world where they may have affected pollinator colonies and water sources. They have also used immense amounts of energy to fly to our shores and around the world.

My Peace Corps daughter Betsy Reilley served in Kenya (1987-89) and was stationed near LakeNaivasha, a large freshwater lake that now provides water to 127 flower farms around its shores. These farms produce 35% of all flowers shipped to the EU, plus they ship flowers to Russia, Japan and the U.S. Our Valentine roses probably come from Kenya. Just think of all the watering those roses and other plants require. These farms take an enormous toll on the environment.

All of which is to say it is as important to buy local flowers as it is to buy local vegetables and meat. Local organic flower farms like Wild Rose are protecting our local environment and the world environment as well. Wild Rose Flower Farm is a part of the nationwide Slow Flowers movement.

Slow Flowers is the name of a new movement that promotes flowers grown in the United States and sold locally. The flowers will reflect the seasons, although through the magic of greenhouses there can be blossoms even in December. December also means evergreens and colorful natural ornaments like winterberries, red and gold.

Right now Smith is preparing garlic and flower braids, small terrariums she planted with succulents that she has been raising since the spring, more dried flower bouquets, and starting to think about the wreaths she will make like the one I bought last year.

Wild Rose Flower Farm studio

Wild Rose Flower Farm studio

She is also preparing to show off and sell her work at the 20th Art and Industry Open Studios Holiday Sale in Florence on November 12 and 13. Smith and 49 other artists and fine crafters will be showing and selling their work, paintings, sculpture and all manner of crafts. There will be music too. From the hours of 10 am to 5 pm you can tour and shop and enjoy the creative buzz. For more information logon to the website http://artsindustryopenstudios.blogspot.com/

Between  the Rows   November 6, 2016

Wildside Cottage and Gardens

Wildside Cottage

Wildside Cottage

The development of Wildside Cottage and Gardens surprised Sue Bridge. She spent an active life learning and working. She earned a Masters degree in Russian and Middle Eastern studies, learned about different worlds while hitchhiking to Morocco, worked for the Christian Science Monitor, and learned how to gather information and pass it on through print and electronic media. She also supported environmental causes because of her belief that future generations would face great challenges.

Ten years ago she bought eight acres on the hills of Conway where she built a small, off-the-grid house she named Wildside and set herself to building a sustainable homestead. Soon word spread about what she was doing, and it did not take long before local people began asking to come and see. She had long been a communicator in one way or another and realized she had now an opportunity to share what she was learning about the land, about food, about energy and a new way of living.

Sue Bridge

Sue Bridge in front of her root cellar

I first visited Bridge three years ago. I asked her if she had ever imagined that she would be giving tours of Wildside to adults and to children. She shook her head and smiled. “I did not intend, but I do not resist,” she said.

On that first visit three years ago she invited me into her solar powered home. I opened the French doors from the living room and walked out onto the stone terrace to admire the view of planted terraces falling away down the hillside, the little greenhouse with its sod roof, and several fruit trees all embraced by the surrounding hills. She does not care for all this by herself.

Four planted terraces in front of Wildside Cottage

Four terraces cascade down the hill in front of Wildside Cottage

Jono Neiger of Regnerative Design was early on the scene, but he has been joined by others, from summer interns to teachers.

The word ‘gardens’ does not begin to describe the way vegetables, fruits and nuts are grown on Bridge’s eight acres. A map she has created of the space divides it into areas by use. Bridge gave me my own tour beginning with the area around the house with its solar panels, root cellar and terraced beds.

We walked down the hill to the greenhouse with its sod roof. Three years ago it was filled with a winter’s worth of sweet potatoes as well as small plantings of ginger and turmeric. Now a fig tree is bearing fruit.

A large vegetable garden lies next to the greenhouse, and I was able to walk around the fence in the new deer deterrent path. The path was mowed and shrubs with fodder for deer were planted while tall saplings visually reinforced the wire fence. Marauding deer can eat their fill of berries or fruit intended for them, but will be disoriented by the organization of space and barriers and will not try to get over the fence. Deer do not jump over fences unless they understand where they will be landing.

Me in the Wildside rice field

Me in the Wildside rice field

Bridge walked me past the rice bed. It cannot be called a rice paddy where rice is planted in a submerged bed; she use a dry bed technique. Three years ago that bed was quite small, but it has grown to encompass 450 square feet.

On our way back up the hill to the house we passed through the ForestGarden which includes blueberry bushes and a variety of fruit trees from apples to paw paws.  Bridge has also planted what she calls Fertility Beds. These beds of comfrey, bush clover and switch grass are cut down twice a year and used as mulch or compost.

Comfrey is known as a dynamic accumulator whose deep roots gather nutrients like nitrogen and potassium from the soil, and then returns them to the soil as it decomposes. Bush clover is a legume which can also fix nitrogen. These are sustainable ways that soil is improved without chemical fertilizers.

It was on this hill that I first met mountain mint that attracts many kinds of bees, beneficial wasps, butterflies and moths who are all busy pollinators. I have added it to my own garden and love watching all those busy bees.

We walked and compared notes and experiences in the garden, some of which were more humorous than instructive, but I have always said that there are mysteries – and a lot of fun to be found in the garden.

Bridge told me about the teacher from WellesleyCollege who came to teach school children about bees and other pollinators. In order to examine the pollinators more closely, the children caught them in plastic tubes (formerly holding tennis balls) and laid the tubes in an ice filled cooler. Within 10 minutes the pollinators had fallen asleep and could be closely examined with out fear of stinging. This is a technique that is sure to enchant grandchildren and others of your acquaintance! This is training for citizen science at a very young age.

We can all learn about how to use our land, whether acres or backyards, more sustainably from Bridge’s example at the Wildside Cottage and Gardens. She has a website,www. wildsidecottageandgardens.org and will be holding workshops. However, some of us older folks have an opportunity to get a virtual tour of Wildside. Sue Bridge will be speaking on Planting for Uncertain Times at the Greenfield Community College Senior Symposium at the Downtown Campus on Wednesday, November 9 from 2-4 pm with many photographs to illustrate the projects at Wildside Cottage and Gardens. You can call 413-775-1605 for more information.

Between the Rows   October 29, 2016


Autumn Leaves into Cold Compost

2015 leaves spending the year composting

2015 leaves spending the year composting

Autumn leaves are falling. It is time to turn those leaves into ‘black gold’ known as cold compost, and improving our soil.

It was not very long into my Heath gardening career that I met Larry Lightner of Northfield. By the time I met him he was retired from the Mt.Hermon school where he had worked with students to create and maintain some of the school gardens. He still had his own productive gardens and had produce to share. He also had skills to teach and share. Lightner was a promoter of ‘cold compost.’ Most of us know that when we make a compost pile it should be comprised of green and brown materials that will eventually heat up and decompose.

Hot compost is the standard way we all learn about compost. Lightner made good use of the wealth of autumn leaves to make cold compost. He made wire fencing frames of many heights and depths and sizes. Many of his cold compost frames were circular and about two or three feet or so high. Into those frames he packed his leaves. It is amazing how quickly fall leaves break down, and how many leaves can be added over time to such a frame.

Lightner said his cold compost piles could be made high enough to act as a big raised bed making gardening easier for those who had trouble getting down on their knees. My first cold compost piles in Heath were set up inside the stone barn foundation after the barn itself burned down in 1990. After the fire the debris had to be bulldozed and carried away.  The soil such as it was, was not what anyone would call good garden soil. Nothing would grow in it.

The answer was to fill the space by creating a series of wire fencing frames about two feet high and filling them with leaves, packing them down until the frame was filled. I made many trips to Greenfield collecting the bagged leaves that many people left by the side of the street. In the spring I made small indentations in the packed leaves, filled that space with a quart or so of soil and then planted vegetable starts. The important thing to remember about these planting beds is that they did need consistent watering. Rotting leaves do not hold water the same way that good soil does.

By using cold compost planting beds for four years, I actually built up soil that would grow plants, and the frames were put aside.

Last fall we had no need of begging for bags of autumn leaves. Our Greenfield garden was full of leaves. We still had some wire fencing and built a five foot high ring about four feet in diameter. All fall we dumped our raked leaves into that frame, packing them down harder and harder as the pile got deeper.

Releasing the cold compost

Releasing the cold compost

Last weekend we asked our good neighbors, Andrew and Ritchey to help us lift the frame and release the cold compost for us to spread on our garden. Then we would be able to start filling the frame again with this year’s crop.

Ritchey’s parents, Mike and Susan Ritchey, were visiting and on hand to photograph our efforts. We brushed aside the outside leaves, and everyone was amazed to see the beautiful black gold compost that filled the frame. What a lesson about the riches of a new fall harvest.

The cold compost looked finished, but alas, the center of the pile was only partially decomposed

The cold compost looked finished, but alas, the center of the pile was only partially decomposed

However, after Henry and I were left alone to spread the cold compost we realized that the pile had not decomposed fully all the way through. It turns out that even cold compost does need air and more water than our pile got, to decompose thoroughly. We had done a really good job of packing those leaves down hard. No air and very little water made it to the very center of the pile.

We spread the compost and rotting leaves anyway, wetting everything down. I also sprinkled a little soil and mulch over the less composted leaves. The soil will be richer for it in the spring.

Leaves can also be ground up with a mechanical leaf shredder, or you can run your lawn mower over leaf piles. The shredded leaves can be spread over the gardens as mulch and will almost have disappeared by springtime. However leaves are  handled, they return organic material and nutrients to the soil. Don’t miss this chance to enrich your soil.

I also want to let you know that the University of Massachusetts Extension Service Garden Calendar is now available. The 2017 UMass Garden Calendar features info about successful gardening during a dry season, as well as special tips for container gardening and extensive lists of suggested drought tolerant annuals and perennials for New England gardens. You can logon to  www.umassgardencalendar.org to see calendar images and useful information all year long.  The photographs are a selection of plants chosen by the UMass Extension Landscape, Nursery & Urban Forestry staff for pest resistance, adaptability to specific growing environments, and seasonal effectiveness.

The calendar is $12. If you order before November 1 shipping is free. After November 1 there is a shipping charge of $3.50 for the first calendar and $2 for each additional calendar up to 9. There are bulk buying rates as well. If ordered by November 1 delivery before Christmas is guaranteed. For faster delivery order online at https://ecommerce.umass.edu/extsales/.  You can also go online to get order forms to fill  out and mail with a check.

Green Barriers for Function and Beauty

newly planted arborvitae

Newly planted arborvitae

Recently a friend asked if I had any suggestions for creating a sound barrier in front of his house. My first idea was arborvitae. These neat symmetrical conifers are popular because they are not only handsome, but because they are low maintenance plants. They are hardy, not fussy about soil, are fairly salt tolerant and once they are established they are drought tolerant. They also tolerate some shade but need at least four hours of sun.

Two easily available arborvitae cultivars are Emerald Green which will reach a height of about 15 feet with a three to four foot spread, growing at a rate of about a foot a year. Green Giant will reach a height of 30-40 feet with a 15-20 foot spread, and grows more rapidly.

The Leyland cedar, which has the scale-like foliage and other attributes similar to that of the arborvitae, will grow about two feet a year until it is 60 feet or more with a spread of about 20 feet. It needs full sun.

The question with any planting is how long it will take before the plants achieve your goal. One way to hurry the usefulness of a sound barrier created by these trees is to plant two rows, with the second row planted off center. Two rows planted this way will give you a solid barrier more quickly. An annual pruning will help control the height.

mature arborvitae

Mature arborvita

Evergreens make the best sound barrier, but people need other barriers if they are looking for greater privacy on small urban lots. I have seen houses here in Greenfield that have five or six foot privet hedges in front of their houses to give them privacy in their gardens.

The lots on our Greenfield street are quite narrow. Houses take up most of the width of the lot and driveways use more land next to the house. The north side of our house, where we park our car, is hardly more than an alley. Long ago our neighbor on that side planted a privet hedge which is now about seven or eight feet tall.

On the south side there is approximately 21 feet from our house to our neighbor’s driveway. Driveways are necessary and we all have them, but no one ever claimed they were things of beauty. Our answer was a deep border filled with blooming shrubs.

I began with hydrangeas which have become so popular. There are different families of hydrangea and each of them has different requirements and benefits. I was careful to choose paniculata hydrangeas which have the kind of loose, airy flower clusters that I like. I am not as fond of the familiar snowball hydrangeas. Paniculata hydrangeas are hardy and not very fussy. All three of the cultivars I chose should be pruned back slightly in the very early spring to encourage new growth, but they require little other care.

I chose three which promise to be tall and wide. Limelight has a long bloom season, producing large pale green flowers from mid-summer into the fall. Hydrangeas grow quickly and it should not take long before my Limelight reaches a height of at least five feet, and I’m hoping for seven or eight feet, with an equal spread.

Then I chose Angel’s Blush hydrangea because its label said it was one of the largest hydrangeas and would grow to 10 feet tall and just as wide. The large loose flower clusters turn a lovely shade of pink over the summer. It also tolerates some shade.

Since I can never resist shades of pink and red my third choice was Quick Fire. The large flowers will turn a deeper and deeper shade of pink/red over the summer. It will reach a similar height and width as Angel’s Blush.

I’ve planted lilacs and viburnams in this deep border as well, but hydrangeas will be the stars. Because these shrubs are still young, I have also used ground covers, perennials and a few annuals to cover the ground. I’d don’t want to look at bare soil any more than I do a driveway. As the shrubs fill out I will move those plants to a roomier spot. My photo of a section of this border/barrier looks a bit of a tangle, but that will change as the hydrangeas mature.

Hydrangea border

Hydrangea border

No matter how big and tall my hydrangeas get they will loose their blossoms and foliage when frigid winter storms in, but we will be keeping our heads down and rushing from car to house so we won’t be looking at the flower bed. Or my neighbor’s driveway.

We are also planning a privacy barrier with a third type of shrub at the back of our lot. The very back border is a bit of a tangle of weedy trees and Virginia creeper. I don’t object to this wildness because wild space is important to support pollinators and birds. However, it is not lovely.

Because this end of our lot is very wet we have created a kind of large raised bed that we call The Hugel. So far we have only planted groundcovers on The Hugel, but  in the spring we will plant beautiful broadleaf evergreens, rhododendrons.

The world of rhododendrons is a large one with small and tall cultivars, in a rainbow of colors like the pink Scintillation, the soft yellow Capistrano, snowy Boule de Neige, or rich Purple Passion. These low maintenance shrubs all bloom gloriously in the spring around Memorial Day in our area. Though their leaves curl in really cold weather, they will still provide an attractive barrier in front of our deciduous weediness. ###

Between the Rows   October 15, 2016

Forcing Spring Bulbs


Mt Holyoke College Spring Bulb show

Mt Holyoke College Spring Bulb show

Are you thinking about forcing spring bulbs? Most of us will never have a March forced bulb display the way Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges do, but visits to these heartening spring flower shows do make the point that we can create an early spring in our own houses.

October is the month to prepare to force our favorite bulbs, daffodils, hyacinths, grape hyacinths, scillas, and amaryllis. The theory behind bulb forcing is that we have to fool the bulbs into thinking that winter has come, and then let them think that spring has begun. Most bulbs need twelve weeks of cold temperatures defined as between 40 to 50 degrees. These temperatures might be found in basements, or the refrigerator.

These forced tulips that did not have a sufficient cooling period

These forced tulips that did not have a sufficient cooling period

Potting up bulbs for forcing begins with clean pots of an appropriate size and good potting soil. Tulips can be planted three to a pot with a five inch diameter. Hyacinths and daffodils can be planted three to a pot with a seven inch diameter. The bulbs should be planted so that the tip of the bulb is exposed.

Little bulbs like crocus, grape hyacinths and scillas can be planted several to a single pot, depending on pot size and they should be covered with an inch of potting soil. Make sure you have allowed room in the pot for watering. Newly planted bulbs should be well watered after planting, but no more watering is needed while the bulbs enjoy their dormancy in a cool dark place.

Because each type of bulb has a different bloom period each pot should only contain one type of bulb. Because of the varying needs of bulbs, those in charge of the college greenhouses have a strict schedule for managing temperatures in order to have the bulbs come into bloom on the appointed dates of the shows. If you attend those shows you will also notice that the greenhouses are kept very cool throughout the run of the show to encourage as long a period of good bloom as possible.

When the long initial period of cooling is finished, and green shoots begin to appear, the pots of bulbs can be brought out into warmer and brighter rooms. If possible, put them in a fairly cool room, and never put them in direct sunlight. First the foliage will develop, then the buds appear and soon the flowers. Many of us keep our house cooler at night to save on heating bills; cool nights are very good for our growing bulbs. Some of us may have rooms that are cooler for any number of reasons and they also provide a happy location for the bulbs at night. Cool temperatures will help to prolong the bloom period.

Forced paper white narcissus

Forced paper white narcissus

Hyacinths and paper white narcissus can be forced in water as well as in soil. Hyacinths need a cooling period of only about eight weeks, but paper whites do not need any.  My own refrigerator doesn’t have room for pots of bulbs, but even I could put a some bulbs in a paper bag with a few ventilation holes in it and store them in the refrigerator. The caveat is that apples in the refrigerator will ripen the bulbs prematurely so a choice has to be made between the bulbs and the fruit.

Hyacinths look so pretty standing alone that hyacinth glasses have been invented. These glasses hold the bulb so that the bottom of the bulb can touch water and induce the growth of roots, and then the foliage and flower. Many garden centers sell these special glasses, and even pre-cooled bulbs so that you can start your forcing immediately.

Several paper white narcissus can be set on a bed of two or three inches of pebbles in a shallow pot. Cover the bulbs with just enough of the pebbles to hold them firmly in place. Then add only enough water to touch the bottom of the bulbs. You will have to keep watering as the bulbs grow. The rate and strength of growth will depend on temperature, which ideally should not be more than 70 degrees.

One year I grew paper whites in a four inch square glass vase. The vase allowed me to see the level of water, and it also provided support for the flower stems which can get floppy.

Right now garden centers are filled with boxes of potted amaryllis. These glamorous flowers come on the market intended to bloom during the December holiday season. They do not need cooling in basements or refrigerators.

Amaryllis is usually sold with its own pot with instructions to leave half of the bulb exposed. The pot only allows for about half an inch of space all around the bulb.

In the past I have treated amaryllis as an annual and never tried to bring it into a second season of bloom. However, last year when I was in a constant state of disorganization as we sold one house and moved into another house, the three pots of amaryllis got caught up in the waves of moving our stuff to Greenfield. This spring the pots with dry amaryllis bulbs surfaced. I watered them but had no expectations. Amazingly, two of the three bulbs sent up shoots. I set them outside and continued to give them very little attention. One of them even sent up a flower stem – which broke off when a squirrel was frolicking in the area and knocked the plant over.

Now I will experiment by cutting back the foliage and putting the potted bulbs in the basement for a nap. Will they wake up and begin a new life in 2017? We’ll see.

Between the Rows  October 8, 2016

Little Bulbs for Spring Beauty


Crocus in April

The little bulbs, those that bring us the earliest spring blooms include the familiar crocus, but they can also be from a host of other spring bloomers. Here are a handful of little bulbs that can help you get spring off to an early start.

Possibly the least well known and earliest bulbs to bloom are the winter aconites, Eranthus heymalis. These are members of the buttercup family and the bright yellow flowers look very much like buttercups but the plant is usually three or four inches tall, and never more than six inches. Because it is hardy to Zone 4 it can take temperatures of -30 degrees; it can bloom very early and may even come up through the snow.

Winter aconites like rich humsy soil that is moist and in partial shade. If it is really happy it will reseed itself. This is a very small bulb and in order to get a real show it should be planted with about 15 to a square foot. Fortunately you can get ten bulbs for $5 and 100 for $39.

Galanthus - snowdrops

Snowdrops – Galanthus

Snowdrops are a member of the Galanthus genus which includes about 20 named species, most of which are six inches tall or less.  However, Sam Arnott can reach a height of about 12 inches, as will G. nivalis Viridia-apice. These flowers are a bit larger than the aconites, and the standard is to plant 10 to a square foot in rich humusy soil in the shade. All snowdrops have nodding white blossoms with a green dot on the petals. They are hardy to Zone 3. Like aconites they may bloom in the snow early in the season. Prices vary depending on the species ranging from 50 for $36 – $107.

Crocuses have more substantial blooms about six inches tall. They come in colors from white to pale blue, to deep purple, and gold. They like dry soil, but all bulbs appreciate good humusy soil. After all, we want them to stay in the same place for years, increasing the population every year.

One species, Crocus tommasinianus, produces a small blossom but it does self- seed energetically and is a species most likely to thrive in a lawn. It blooms very early so the foliage dies back before the grass too unkempt. Other advice from the MissouriBotanical Garden, a favorite site of mine for dependable information, is that lawns planted with crocus should not be fertilized, watered or aerated. Well fed grass will out-complete the crocus.  As with any bulb the foliage must be allowed to ripen before it is mowed down. They can be planted 10 to 15 per square foot. The ‘tommies’ should definitely be planted more densely.

Squirrels can do damage to crocus bulbs, but squirrels are less likely to find those planted in the lawn than when they are planted in flower beds.

Scillas are petite, but when planted thickly they are a reflection of the spring sky. Scilla siberica which reaches a height of about 10 inches will give you that sky blue but there are others. The white Scilla siberica alba is a bit shorter and blooms slightly earlier as does the delicately pink S. bifolia Rosea which blooms in the very early spring. Again, it is not very expensive to start a mass planting of scillas beause 100 tiny bulbs will cost $50 or less, and can be planted 10 per square foot.

Grape hyacinths - muscari

Grape hyacinths – muscari

Scillas will be happy in sun or shade, don’t mind a dry site and are pest resistant. I love grape hyacinths, muscari. I used to think they came in only a shade of bright blue, but there are now many varieties including Bellevalia which is almost black, to White Magic. In between is Golden Fragrance which is self explanatory and Valerie Finis, a very pale lavender with a long bloom period and M. armeniacum is very pale at the base of the bloom. All the grape hyacinths are pest resistant. No creature will be digging up the bulbs and eating them.

I planted snowdrops many years ago in what we called the orchard just beyond the vegetable garden. However, I rarely got to see them because I hardly ever walked down there in the very early spring. I finally dug some of them up “in the green” which is to say when they were blooming This is the only time I would be able to see where they were growing. I was much happier having them right in front of the house in front of a low stone wall where the snow melted first. I also planted a few snowdrop bulbs in the open space beneath a shrub. I could admire those sweet blossoms from a window.

I am now preparing to plant a border of crocuses, or maybe aconite, right along the sidewalk at the edge of what is striving to be a grassless lawn. There is sun for several hours before our giant sycamore leafs out. The soil is quite dry there, but I will enrich it with compost after I remove the sod, but before I plant the bulbs. With such tiny bulbs that need to be planted in relatively large numbers, it is easier to dig a clear space and scatter the bulbs, rather than digging a hole or even making an opening with your trowel to plant them singly.

When you order your bulbs they will come with full planting information including the depth at which they should be planted. For example,crocus should be planted 2-3 inches deep.

The older I get the shorter each season seems to get. Autumn is now officially upon us and I am planning for the spring.

Between the Rows  October 1, 2016


Umbellifers – from poison to beauty

Queen Anne's Lace

Queen Anne’s Lace

The family of umbellifers can take us from Socrates poison to Miss Willmott’s Ghost.

Did you ever imagine that Queen Anne’s Lace, sweet cicely, golden alexanders, angelica, sea holly and poison hemlock, were all members of the same botanical family? All of these belong to the large class Apiaceae which is very large, with 300 genera and between 2500-3000 species. I will not give a lengthy lecture on taxonomy, a system used by botanists, but I will give you the hierarchy. First comes the domain, followed by kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species.  For example, humans are in the animalia kingdom and the genus Homo as in Homo sapiens or Homo neanderthalensis.

The class of umbellifers is familiar to any of us who have seen Queen Anne’s Lace growing by the roadside, or used dill when making pickles.

The word umbellifer refers to the shape of the flower. Botanists will say that plants with a flower similar to Queen Anne’s Lace is an inflorescence, which I think is a lovely sounding word. Once you start to think of plants with similar flowers you might first enter a world of edible plants. The herb garden holds many umbellifers including parsley, caraway, cilantro, dill, fennel, anise, celery, and chervil.

Some herbs like Angelica archangelica can grow to seven feet tall. It makes quite a statement in the herb or flower garden. It bears a resemblance to giant hogweed, but it is benign and will not cause rashes or worse. It has been used medicinally in the past. It is a biennial, or may seed itself for several years.

I grew the herb lovage in an out of the way spot in my Heath garden because it easily grew to six feet tall. I didn’t use it much, but I occasionally used the leaves when I didn’t have celery

Which brings us to the vegetable garden with celery, celeriac, fennel, parsnips, and carrots, of course.

If you have any of these umbellifers in your herb or vegetable garden you know that the flowers attract many pollinators and butterflies. Once I learned that the striking yellow and green caterpillars I saw crawling on and eating my dill would eventually turn into lovely swallowtail butterflies, I planted extra parsley and dill. Still, I remain willing to sacrifice these plants because it means I have the flowers of the sky in my garden.

Sea Holly

Sea Holly

And that just about brings us to the flowers in the garden. Sea holly (Eryngium) is an umbellifer. The silvery but bright blue umbel looks quite different from the airy and flat Queen Anne’s Lace blossom. The sea holly umbel more resembles the center of a cone flower with tiny flowers in the center surrounded by thistle-like bracts.

I bought a sea holly for my Heath garden several years ago and I’ve forgotten the particular species. There are a couple of species of sea holly that are hardy in our region.

Eryngium Big Blue will grow to nearly three feet with a two foot spread. Eryngium yuccifolium has yucca-like foliage with small, pale greenish-white umbels and no bracts. Both of these are very hardy and do well in ordinary soil that drains well. It is an ideal plant for the dry garden.

There is another sea holly nicknamed Miss Willmott’s Ghost. This plant is quite famous in England where the wealthy Miss Ellen Willmott (1858-1934) lived and gardened. She was a passionate gardener and it has been said that she had 200 gardeners working in her Warley Place gardens.

One of her favorite plants was Erynium giganteum and it was well known that she often scattered the seeds of this plant in the gardens that she visited. I have heard different stories about her habit of spreading the seed of this favorite plant. Some say she did it because she loved it so much she wanted to share it with all her friends. Others say she did it to irritate people. Either way, the big pale holly became known as Miss Willmott’s Ghost. She became more and more eccentric as she lived, and ultimately died a pauper.

Some of the umbellifers are so similar in appearance that they can be mistaken for a poisonous member of the family. A couple of years ago there was a great concern about giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) which grows to ten feet with a flower that resembles Queen Anne’s Lace. This is a phototoxic plant. When the sap gets on your skin and then is exposed to sunlight the damage it causes looks like a bad burn and is very painful.

Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) was used on purpose in 399 B.C. by the Greek philosopher Socrates who had been convicted of corrupting Athenian youth. Plato was with Socrates when he took the deadly drink and watched him stroll around the room until he felt his strength waning. He lay down and was soon dead.

Those who read A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley may remember that the epic story of a farming family also includes murder by poison hemlock.

Water hemock (Cicuta) is considered the most deadly poisonous plant in the United States. The deaths that occur are because the roots are mistaken for edible vegetables.  It takes hardly more than a bite before it attacks the nervous system causing vomiting and seizures.

My advice is to stick to parsley and parsnips in the kitchen, and sea holly in the garden.

Between the Rows   September 24, 2016