Dear Friend and Gardener

Augustine Henry – Plant Hunter

With all the attention being given to the importance of native plants in our domestic landscape, one can only wonder where all the non-natives, otherwise known as exotics, came from. If you look at plant names, sometimes including the full scientific name, you will get a hint. Many of the plants discovered in countries like China will have the name of the plant hunter included.

Those who are familiar with Kerria with its sprays of golden pompoms may not realize that it is named for the Scottish plant collector William Kerr (1879-1914) or that the Sargent crabapple (Malus sargentii) was named for Charles Sprague Sargent, the  first director of the Arnold Arboretum (1872-1927).

Sargent also sponsored many plant hunters like the British Ernest H. Wilson, soon known as Chinese Wilson, who travelled around the world to find new plants and send seeds and cuttings back to the Arnold Arboretum.

Lilium henryi

Lilium henryi

A number of years ago a friend gave us a large white clematis named Clematis henryi. The gift was in honor of my husband Henry. I subsequently planted two lilies, the golden Lilium henryi, and a White henryi, both with gracefully recurved petals.  It did not occur to me until recently to wonder who was the henryi.

Augustine Henry was Irish (1857-1930) and after earning a medical degree from Queens College in Galway, a friend suggested he go to work for British Customs in China. He passed the necessary exams and studied to gain a working knowledge of Chinese. An impressive accomplishment in itself. He left for China in 1881. For nearly 20 years he worked in Yunnan, Hubei, Shanghai and Formosa, banishing the hours of isolation and boredom by exploring the local landscape and woodlands.

Lilium white henryi

Lilium white henryi

What began as a time filling hobby became a passion. Though not a botanist he realized there were many unusual plants he had never seen before. In 1884 he sent a letter to the director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew offering to send specimens back if he thought they would be useful. By 1885 he was thoroughly engrossed in finding new plants, and finding out as much about them as possible, their Chinese names and local uses, especially of plants used medicinally.

He was aided in the beginnings of his studies and plant collecting with advice from Henry Hance, a leading expert on Chinese flora and British vice-consul in Canton.

Some plant hunting had been done in China earlier, but with very little that resulted in getting plants or seeds back to England. Augustine Henry could only collect plants when he was not working but between November 1884 and February 1889 he discovered about 500 species that were new to scientists in the western world. This included 25 new genera.  I can only imagine the trouble he would have had trying to reconcile European scientific names with the Chinese names for plants.

In a letter to a friend from student days, Evelyn Gleeson, he confesses to trouble collecting colorful flowering plants, because his own interest was in the variety of foliage forms. He particularly disliked chrysanthemums because he found the foliage so ugly, but he did love all the roses. His rose discoveries are particularly important to me because it is the China rose that gave ever-blooming genes to the west.

One of the great botanical searches in China was for Davidia involucrata, the dove tree or handkerchief tree. Henry had found a single tree but was not able to collect seed. When E.H. Wilson arrived Henry gave him as much information as he had. Wilson did eventually find the site of Henry’s Davidia, but it has been cut down. Fortunately he found other Davidia trees nearby and was able to send seeds back to England. Actually, Henry did find a different form of the handkerchief tree: D. involucrata var. vilmoriniana, which has grayer leaves than the tree first described by Father Armand David in 1871.  Although D. involucrata is more widely available, Henry’s tree is more likely to be found as a mature specimen in Britain, owing to its greater hardiness.

Of course, out of the over 15,000 specimens of over 5,000 species that Augustine Henry collected, only a few are propagated for garden use today. There are the very popular henryi lilies, but there is also Lonicera henryi, clematis henryi and the blue flowered rhododendron augustinii. This rhododendron is notable because it is lime-tolerant, and has been used to hybridize new blue rhodies.

During his years in China Henry met many other men who were botantists like Chinese Wilson, as well as those who were, like him, intelligent and skilled amateurs. Like gardeners everywhere they shared information and plants.

Perhaps, remembering his love of foliage, it is not surprising that when Henry returned to England he decided to begin a career in forestry. He went to study at the FrenchSchool of Forestry at Nancy but left to work with Henry J. Elwes to work on a book about trees cultivated in Ireland and Great Britain. Then in 1907 he began teaching at the University of Cambridge, leaving in 1913 for the Royal College of Science in Dublin to become their first professor of forestry.

Henry’s first wife died of tuberculosis in 1894. He married Alice Brunton in 1908. It was she who organized the 10,000 tree specimens in his private collection which became the Augustine Henry Forestry Herbarium in the National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin.

I like thinking about Augustine Henry launching himself into a life in a totally different country and culture, finding discovery, excitement and pleasure in a new passion that brought so many new plants to our notice, and made us all so much richer.

Between the Rows   January 30, 2016

Plentiful Primroses

 

Primroses

Primroses from Fosters

Earlier this week I entered Foster’s Market and the first thing I saw was a bank of primroses. I could not have been happier. Many years ago I bought a pot of Foster’s primroses and after the blossoms had gone by I saved the plant until spring tip toed in. I planted it at the edge of a wooded spot in our Heath backyard. I didn’t do much in the way of preparation, just digging with a trowel and adding a couple of handfuls of compost. The primroses did increase with no help from me and were still blooming last spring. Those pale primroses were not my last. I bought more primroses at Fosters, adding richer and more brilliant red, and purple varieties.

Of course, having seen the new array I had to buy four pots (two pots for $7) in shades of primrose cream, yellow and gold. They made a lovely centerpiece on the dining table for a luncheon with friends. There are over 500 species of primula, but I believe the species on my table is P. vulgaris, sometimes called the English primrose. They will also go into the garden when the time comes.

Another primrose for the wild garden is P. veris. The flowers are very similar to the English primrose but they form pendulous clusters on slightly taller stems, up to 10 or 12 inches. This is the primrose that is referred to as cowslips in Shakespeare’s plays like The Tempest. Ariel sings his  song, “Where the bee sucks, there suck I. In a cowslip’s bell I lie.”

Over the years I have admired other primroses. I visited a friend one wet spring and she showed me the pale pink Japanese primroses growing in a shallow stream. Most P. japonica primroses bloom in shades of pink and white. These are a candelabra type with tiers of blossoms held high on a stem that can be two feet tall. They obviously like water and reseed freely making a lovely wild planting in the shade. This seems like a perfect plant for my very wet Greenfield garden.

While the P. japonica have a candelabra form, there are other types in this large candelabra family. P. bulleyana is tall with apricot/orange blooms bringing color later in the season. It also likes the wet and will naturalize quickly. P. beesiana is another candelabra variety, about two feet tall, with pinky/purple blossoms blooming from spring into summer. These primroses, like most that have enough of a stem, are good cutting flowers for bouquets.

Primula tommasinii You and Me Blue is a very unusual primrose that has a double blossom, but it does not have double the number of petals, it has a second blossom growing up from the first blossom on an 8 to 12 inch stem. It is called a hose-in-hose flower named after a type of hose that men wore in the 1500s. Blue is an unusual color in primroses, so this is a fascinating flower on at least two levels.

Many primulas are hardy to zone 5 and are not difficult to grow given rich soil, moisture and some shade. But there are other varieties that have very different requirements.

The auriculas are a group of primroses that are ideal for a partly shady spot with neutral or slightly alkaline soil. They are alpine plants and do well in a rock garden that can be top dressed with fine gravel. Auriculas have a more dramatic form comprised of richly colored petals surrounding a white or pale center. Most also have a pale coating that is called ‘farina’ and is considered desirable, especially if you are entering your auricula in a flower show. Unlike the candelabra primroses they do not come true from seed, nor do they reseed themselves as freely.

Primroses

Primroses in the garden

I never attempted to divide my primroses, leaving them to their own devices, and gave them no attention after planting. They did increase in size, but not to the extent that is possible.

Dividing primroses can be done after blooming after deadheading, or in the early fall. A clump can be dug up and the corms can be seen and pulled apart gently. The new planting spot should be enriched with rotted manure or good compost. Then the leaves can be cut back to three inches, as well as the roots. Cutting back in this way will encourage the division to make new strong roots without needing to feed lush foliage. They can be fertilized again after replanting with non-nitrogen fertilizers. We want to concentrate on building new roots, not new foliage.

Aside from Foster’s Market which sells primroses for a brief period I don’t know where you can buy plants locally. Portland Nursery and Garden Center in Portland, Washington sells a selection of primula varieties (www.portlandnursery.com, and I did find Primula tomasinii You and Me Blue at Bluestone Perennials (www.bluestoneperennials.com) among their selection of single and frilly double primulas.

I don’t often see primroses in gardens so I am especially looking forward to having my own bank of P. japonica, luxuriating in my wet garden. Even though I am now living in town I am trying to create a woodland garden, a garden unlike my sunny hill garden. This woodland garden will be a response to my very different site, to my desire for more native plants that will support birds and pollinators, and (I hope) it will be less labor intensive.

Primroses

Primroses

Between the Rows  January 23, 2016

Perennials For Pollinators

Bee Balm

Monarda, bee balm

The first surprising thing I learned about perennials was that they do not bloom all summer. Some may bloom for as long as four weeks, and others may send up a second flush of bloom if you remember to cut them back after the first flush. This means that to keep a swath of perennial blooms for the whole garden season you will have to choose a variety of perennials that  will make timely appearances all season long. When I consider perennials for my new garden I am not only thinking about what I find beautiful, but about which will thrive in the conditions of my garden, and which will most benefit birds and pollinators.

So, to begin in the spring I am considering Veronica Crater Lake Blue, one of the few true blues in the garden. This dependable veronica produces 16 inch spikes of blue in the spring. A mass planting of that blue in sun or part shade will attract butterflies and hummingbirds. To go with that vivid blue, I am considering golden Alexanders, Zizia aurea, a native plant and member of the carrot family that doesn’t mind periodic wet and produces its lacy golden blooms from May into June. It usually doesn’t grow more than two feet.

White windflowers, Anemone sylvestris, are perfect for the wild garden. They are usually less than a foot tall and can take sun and shade. They are vigorous growers and will spread, but they also go dormant in the summer and can share their space with other perennials like epimediums or cranesbills. They like moist, but well drained soil, and I can arrange a spot like that. I also want to mention Anemone Honorine Jobert which blooms in late summer and well into the fall. This is an old white anemone with two to three inch golden eyed blossoms held on strong wiry three foot stems. It has been named the plant of the year 2016 by the Perennial Plant Association because it is beautiful, dependable, low maintenance and disease resistant. We must remember that this fragile looking beauty has real stamina.

Echinacea purpurea

Echinacea purpurea

As the season slips towards summer Echinacea, coneflower, and Monarda, bee balm come into bloom. Echinacea has become such a popular flower that there are now many cultivars. Several have fluffy moppy flowers; I don’t believe these are as useful in attracting bees and other pollinators as the simpler flower forms. However, there is a new series of coneflowers in bright colors that would liven up any summer garden. Echinacea Sombrero comes in a rainbow of bright colors, including Baja Burgundy that would catch the eye of any passing bee. I brought my own basic native Echinacea purpurea to Greenfield and will be happy to add some new excitement with bright new colors.

My Colrain Red, and a nameless wine-red bee balm in Heath attracted uncounted bees and their friends, as well as flocks of hummingbirds. A new monarda has caught my eye because it is billed as wet site tolerant. Cranberry Lace is a frilly, petite bee balm only a foot tall so is suitable for containers as well as the front of the border. It can also take a fair amount of the shade which moves across my new garden, but I can give it the necessary six hours of full sun.

Another small version of a popular perennial is Achillea Little Moonshine.  Many of us are familiar with the standard Moonshine yarrow which has such gentle yellow blossoms. Little Moonshine has the same richness, but it is no more than 12 inches tall and wide with a graceful mounding habit. Little Moonshine begins blooming at the beginning of summer and goes right through until September. If you cut it back after the first flush you will get even more blooms.

Woods Blue asters

Woods Blue asters

By the middle of August the fall bloomers begin. There are asters, like the tall, popular deep pink Alma Potschke, and classic lavender-blue Aster frikartii. An aster that is new to me is September Ruby a deep plumy pink with the familiar golden eye. It will grow four feet tall, and importantly for me, will tolerate a wet site. Equally important, asters attract butterflies with their nectar, but their foliage will also feed their larvae. Rabbit resistant. This is more important than I imagined. Even Greenfield has wild life that doesn’t mind nipping into the local gardens. I did bring a few roots of low growing Wood’s Blue aster with me from Heath because I like the way it acts as a flowery ground cover in the fall. It spreads vigorously and there are very few weeds to contend with in a patch of Wood’s Blue.

Rudbeckia hirta Prairie Sun doesn’t have the black or brown eye like the black eyed Susans, but the gold petals shading yellow are as bright as the autumn sun. They do need that sun to shine on them, but they like adequate water. I think I have that. Rudbeckias attract bees, butterflies and birds, but they are deer resistant. Chosen as an All America Selection winner in 2003 Prairie Sun is a sure winner for new gardeners. Annuals and perennials, old and new varieties, all have a place in every garden. Enjoy them both.

Between the Rows  January 16, 2016

Everything Changes – in the garden and everywhere

Planting in a Post Wild World

Planting in a Post-Wild World

Everything changes. Change on all fronts is inescapable, unstoppable and inevitable. No one knows this more than a gardener who watches her garden change over the years.

In 2016 I will be gardening in a new garden, a smaller garden, a garden that will not require as much maintenance as the Heath garden. It is also a garden with very different features. The soil is heavy clay. The soil is very wet and drains slowly.  There is a lot of shade.

With the help of noted landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy’s Home Outside Palette app my husband and I began to layout and plant garden beds, concentrating on water loving, or water tolerant native shrubs.  My desire was to have a kind of woodland garden instead of perennial beds .

Over the years I have become more and more interested in native plants, and more and more aware of their value in maintaining the health of our ecosystems. Certain books have led me along this path including Bringing Nature Home by entomologist Douglas Tallamy. Tallamy also collaborated with Rick Darke on The Living Landscape: Designing for beauty and biodiversity in the home garden. Darke is a landscape lecturer and photographer who proves that a biodiverse garden can be beautiful.

Most recently Timber Press sent me a copy of Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West.

One of their goals is to help gardeners create beautiful gardens that more closely replicate the ways plants grow in the wild even in urban and suburban situations.  “The good news is that it is entirely possible to design plantings that look and function more like they do in the wild: more robust, more diverse, and more visually harmonious with less maintenance. The solution lies in understanding plantings as communities of compatible species that cover the ground in interlocking layers.”

While Rainer and West value native species, they call their philosophy “a middle way” in which layered plantings mean more room for compatible non-natives (never invasives) and a greater diversity of beneficial plants. They want to focus on naturally occurring plant communities which means paying less attention to purely native plantings and concentrating on performance and adaptability. Their idea is to make our relationship to nature a collaborative one.

I should mention here that the book is lavishly illustrated with beautiful photographs that give an explicit view of what they are talking about. Photographs show the differences in landscapes from the humble hellstrip along a sidewalk to flowery meadows, droughty hillsides and woodlands.

Rainer and West lay out five basic principles. The first is to concentrate on related populations, not isolated indivduals. This means not planting the Echinacea next to the sedum next to the hellebore. It means letting plants self-seed and intermingle, as they do in nature. My own Heath lawn, or flowery mead as I called it, is a case in point.

Principle two: Stress can be an asset. This is often how we get to naturally occurring plant communities.

Principle three: Cover the ground densely by vertically layering plants. This is a reminder that bare soil does not exist in nature and we can find plants to fill every niche of space and soil type and let nature do some of that filling in.

Principle four: Make it attractive and legible. This principle will calm those who wonder if all Rainer and West desire is messy, weedy woodland. They are realists they say, and “designed plant communities can be patterned and stylized in a way that makes them understandable, ordered and attractive. They need not replicate nature in order to capture its spirit.”  They suggest ‘frames’ which can be pathways or other hardscape elements like fences or walls.

Principle five: Management, not maintenance. Gardeners know you cannot plant a garden and then sit back and admire it indefinitely. But with good management you can eliminate many chores, weeding, watering, spraying, etc. This is possibly my favorite principle.

The penultimate chapter gives specific instruction on planting and maintaining a plant community.

Planting in a Post-Wild World is a dense, but readable book. Not all the ideas are brand new but they are presented in new ways, broadening their applicability, and showing how we can adapt them to our own situation. Rainer and West believe the time is right for a horticultural renaissance where plantings will be ecologically diverse, functional and sound, but will also be beautiful, understandable and appealing to the gardener and her friends.

I made a start on a new and different garden this past summer, but there is a lot of work to do in 2016 to make it functional in the ways I first imagined, and in new ways as well. I am now dreaming of a hugelkulture project. Stay tuned. I am also thinking of how I can expand on the plans I made for covering the ground in my new, and soon to be enlarged beds. I think I can be bolder about letting plants intermingle. I want to work towards the plateau of management.

How will you and your garden change in 2016?

Between the Rows  January 2, 2016

Christmas Trees – Large and Small

Norway spruce

Norway spruce

One of the very first things I liked about our new house, or more specifically our new yard, was the very tall evergreen in the northwestern corner. It is a magnificent tree that might be 30 feet tall with graceful pendulous branches. On our first drive past the house I admired this beautiful tree in the backyard. It is not like any tree we had in view in Heath. There most of the conifers are pines or hemlocks.

I thought this tree was a Norway spruce although I cannot say what depths of my mind or imagination made me think so. With so much else to do I did not go out of my way to try and identify it properly. Now that it has produced some cones in its upper branches I have been able to confirm that it is indeed a Norway spruce.

Our tree doesn’t have any cones near the ground, but a zoom lens on my camera puts them within identifying distance and the long cones do match the photographs I found online.

Norway Spruce cones

Norway spruce cones

The Norway spruce, as you might imagine, is native to Europe and beloved by the Norwegians. It is disease resistant and deer don’t like to eat it. It likes acid soil and is hardy in zone 2 (hardy to -50 degrees) and tolerant of a zone 7 climate where the temperature rarely goes below zero. Any tree welcomes good soil, but this tree is very tolerant of clay or sandy soils with the caveat that it get at least 25 inches of rain a year. According to US Climate Data Greenfield gets an average of 50 inches of rain a year. After seven months working on our new house I have learned that my biggest gardening challenge is the poor drainage of my clay soil. The Norway spruce does not lack for moisture.

It is a fast growing tree, especially in the first 25 years after being planted especially under good conditions. At maturity it can reach a height of 100 feet with a 40 foot spread. It is not a tree for a small garden! Our street was laid out around 1925 so the tree was probably not planted before that, making it nearly 100 years old.

Norway spruce has a deep and wide spreading root system making it very sturdy in heavy wind, hence its frequent use as a windbreak tree.

Learning that the Norway spruce was a good and valuable timber tree, I did not think that it would make a very good Christmas tree. I was wrong. I just learned that Norway sends a majestic Norway spruce every year to London, Edinburgh, New York and Washington, D.C. In London it stands regally in Trafalgar Square; I don’t know where the other cities place their spruces. The trees are a gift in gratitude for the aid given to Norway during World War II.

We’ve had several varieties of Christmas tree over the years. Our first Christmas tree in Greenfield in 1971 was a straggly hemlock that began dropping needles as soon as we brought it into the house. A new friend took me and my three girls into the woods to have a real Christmas experience and cut down our own tree. The experience was not quite what we expected or wished for but it has made one of our favorite family stories.

Our first tree in Heath was a fat Colorado blue spruce that was growing right in front of the windows where we had our dining table to get a view of our beautiful landscape. The tree was not part of the view we wanted to admire. It had to come down. It was not too hard to cut down, but it was so fat and bristly with sharp needles that we all got a bit bloodied while trying to drag it into place. I’ve been told that  while the Colorado blue spruce is a popular Christmas tree, it is often sold as a small living tree in a pot so that it could be planted outdoors later. I certainly can understand that a baby blue spruce is easier to handle than a mature specimen. I hope most people do a better job of siting the tree than our predecessors did.

When we planted our snowbreak in Heath with Conservation District pines, we also planted a number of Balsam firs. We were able to harvest those trees for Christmas over the years, and did at least one additional planting that got us nearly through our tenure there. I do have to say we have had some very odd looking trees over the years. Planting trees intended for Christmas does not necessarily mean you will prune and care for those trees the way a professional tree farmer will.

Christmas Tree

Our Christmas Tree

This year for the first time in many years we bought a tree on Greenfield’s Main Street. It is a fat Fraser fir, one of the most popular tree varieties. It was well pruned and tended which means it has a lovely regular shape, but it does not have the space between its branches to hang larger ornaments. That was an adjustment for me, the chief tree decorator. When we had our own very irregular Christmas trees there was always empty space for large ornaments.

So this year, we have an imposing Norway spruce in the backyard protecting us from any bitter northwest winds, and a charming Christmas tree in  our new dining room where we will enjoy roast beast and sugar plums, and celebrate all twelve days of Christmas.  On January 6 the tree will be taken down and set out in the garden (such as it is) to hold suet and seeds for the birds.

My wish is that you each celebrate the holidays for at least 12 days, and find many happy days waiting for you in 2016.

Between the Rows   December 26, 2015

Horticultural Society Memberships Make Good Gifts

American Gardener Magazine

American Gardener Magazine published by the American Horticultural Society

Being surrounded by books makes me feel secure and comfortable knowing that I have information or entertainment at hand whenever I need it. However, my bookshelves also hold magazine holders where I store the magazines like Fine Gardening and the magazines and newsletters from horticultural societies like the American Horticultural Society, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and the New England Wildflower Society. I am a member of all three. Memberships in horticultural and plant societies make a great gift.

Membership in the American Horticultural Society ($35 annually) includes a subscription to The American Gardener, a bi-monthly magazine that includes information about the doings of the Society, and articles about plants and gardeners, expert and amateur. Last year, as part of a series on gardeners in the community, they even included an article about me, and the Bridge of Flowers. Previous issues are also available online to all members.

As rich and useful as The American Gardener is, that is only one of the membership benefits. Members also get reciprocal entry to 300 public gardens nationally, a seed exchange program, and discounts at the Garden Shop.

What the AHS gets from our dues is support for programs like the National Children and Youth Garden Symposium for teachers and those creating school and other gardens for the young. Dues also support the AHS headquarters which includes the 25 acre River Farm in Alexandria, Virginia with its varied gardens. There are perennial borders, a meadow, an orchard and 13 small imaginative gardens that make up the whole of the Children’s Garden. We are all invited to visit.

Weezie's Children's Garden

Whimsical Tower in Weezie’s Children’s Garden at the Elm Bank garden

A bit closer is the Massachusetts Horticultural Society ($55) with its headquarters in Wellesley. The ElmBankGardens include Weezie’s Garden for children, a trial garden for All-America seeds, the Garden to Table vegetable garden, and gardens planted by the Daylily Society and the Rhododendron Society. The Italianate Garden was originally designed by the Olmstead Brothers, and renovated in 2001. A Masshort membership gives you unlimited access to all these gardens, as well as reciprocal admission to public gardens across the country, discounts at 70 nurseries and garden centers, and discounts on the many educational programs and events presented every year. And, of course, a ticket to the Boston Flower and Garden Show.

Membership in the Massachusetts Horticultural Society will also give you a subscription to Rodale’s Organic Life and borrowing privileges at the Society’s library.

Even more locally is Nasami Farm in Whately, the propagating wing of the New England Wildflower Society ($55) founded in 1900. Membership in this Society gives you unlimited visits to the Garden in the Woods in Framingham with admission for one guest each visit, subscription to all Society publications, plus monthly e-newsletters, and discounts at a number of regional and mail order nurseries through the Nursery Partner Program.

With all the growing information and appreciation of the benefits to the environment of using native plants, and eradicating invasive plants, I find it a pleasure to support the oldest plant conservation organization in the United States. And a real pleasure to shop for native perennials, groundcovers, shrubs and trees at Nasami Farm.

I must mention that all three societies have beautiful websites, full of information, and all free. Among other things the AHS has a full list of plant societies like the Daylily Society with full information about joining them.

The New England Wildflower Society’s website includes Go Botany which will help you identify plants, but of course, you need to observe and describe them carefully. Go Botany is a great place for adults and children to work together to identify plants and have fun while learning about the anatomy and life of plants.

For those who wish to specialize there are plant societies devoted to a specific plant. There are many iris enthusiasts in our area and the American Iris Society ($30 annually) produces a 65 page Bulletin four times a year with all the latest information about iris cultivation and new cultivars whether they be Japanese, Siberian, dwarf or any other type of iris. There will also be news about iris tours, auctions and exhibitions.

The American Rhododendron Society ($40) produces a quarterly Journal with Society and plant information, information about conferences, lectures and tours, discounts on books, and local chapters where rhodie lovers can meet others of like mind.

There is also the American Rose Society ($49) which will give you 5 issues of American Rose magazine, the American Rose Annual, a handbook for selecting roses, online quarterly bulletins, advice from consulting rosarians, discounts at rose nurseries, free or reduced admission to many public gardens and arboreta, and a subscription to Better Homes and Gardens magazine. www.rose.org.

A gift membership in any one (or two) of the societies that gives information about the favorite plants of the gardener in your family is bound to be a hit. The cost is modest, and you can do all your shopping on line.

Between the Rows   December 19, 2015

Gift Books for the Gardener

At my house every gift giving occasion should include a book, or three. Every year there is a new crop of books to help new and experienced gardeners keep up with new trends and techniques, and find new ways to make their gardens, indoors and out, more beautiful and/or productive. Here is a sampling of new books for the gardener.

Fruit Gardener's Bible

Fruit Gardener’s Bible by Lewis Hill and Leonard Perry

Fruit Gardener’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Growing Fruit and Nuts in the Home Garden by Lewis Hill and Leonard Perry ($25 Storey Publishing)

Lewis Hill’s books have been with me almost ever since we moved to Heath and planned to start producing a lot of our food. I constantly referred to his book Cold Climate Gardening, Fruits and Berries for the HomeGarden, and Pruning Simplified. Lewis Hill was a Vermonter who did his best to help gardeners in their endeavors. He passed away in 2008, but his good friend and colleague Leonard Perry took on the job of revising Hill’s book on growing berries and fruits.

The Fruit Gardener’s Bible is a truly encyclopedic work. In revising the book Perry has updated and included new information about sustainable practices including biological pest and disease control. He also discusses the ways gardeners want to incorporate fruits and nuts into their ornamental landscapes to make use of their beauty as well as their harvests. In addition there are many new varieties of common fruits and more interest in less familiar fruits like loganberries and hardy kiwis.

Hill was a lifelong Vermonter and his writings tended to concentrate on gardens for the New England climates. Perry has expanded the scope of crops and the needs of gardeners who live where the climate posses different challenges.

This book has a focus on organic techniques and provides information from propagating to harvesting. The photographs are beautiful and instructive.

Grow a Little Fruit Tree

Grow a Little Fruit Tree by Ann Ralph

Grow a Little Fruit Tree: Simple Pruning Techniques for Small-Space, Easy Harvest Fruit Trees by Ann Ralph ($17 Storey Publishing)

Ann Ralph’s book is dedicated to the idea that fruit trees can be kept small, no taller than you are, while remaining healthy and productive. What it takes is careful pruning. Her focus is on rootstocks instead of the semi-dwarf label which she criticizes as giving a false idea of how big a tree will grow.

I appreciated her attitude towards growing fruit – which is a good attitude for life. “When you garden, good results depend on three things: what you expect the plant to do, what the plant is capable of in the environment where you put it, and your willingness to contribute.”

Ralph’s prose has a charm and wisdom that would be enjoyable if you never dreamed of planting even a small tree.

Terrariums: Gardens Under Glass by Maria Colletti

Terrariums: Gardens Under Glass by Maria Colletti

Terrariums: Gardens Under Glass by Maria Colletti ($25 Cool Springs Press)

You may not aspire to creating a terrarium in an elegant Wardian case as shown on the cover of this book, but Maria Colletti will show you how to choose containers and plants that can be used to create the landscape of your choice, desert or woodland or tropical.

Colletti is the terrarium designer for the Shop in the Garden at the New YorkBotanical Garden and she loves experimenting with carnivorous plants, cacti, succulents, ferns and tropical plants. She gives us step by step projects with advice and sources for terrarium necessities. She shares traditional, standard and classic building steps but always invites experimentation.

Of course it is one thing to set up and plant a beautiful terrarium, but then maintenance is required to mange moisture. The goal is to reach a state of equilibrium so that you can get to a level of “hands off and enjoy.”

The Indestructible Houseplant by Tovah Martin

The Indestructible Houseplant by Tovah Martin

The Indestructible Houseplant: 200 Beautiful Plants That Everyone Can Grow by Tovah Martin ($23 Timber Press)

As far as I am concerned Tovah Martin is certainly the Queen of Houseplants. Readers who drooled over her earlier book The Unexpected Houseplant with special attention to gorgeous or surprising containers will be happy to see The Indestructible Houseplant.

Martin is a captivating writer and the layout of the book gives her plenty of scope. Along with a photograph of one of her own houseplants she gives an extended description of the plant including the different cultivars, and her own experiences with the plant. In addition there is a sidebar for each that lays out specific information about size, foliage, exposure, water requirements, soil type, fertilization schedule and companions that will live with it happily in the same container. She also includes a line for “other attributes” where she comments “famously indomitable” for aspidistra, “succulent, wonderfully bizarre and varied” for kalanchoe.

We often think the houseplant category is pretty limited, often because we see so few varieties in local garden centers, but Martin blasts that idea and gives us a pageful of sources for the indestructibles she has in her own collection. She begins with African violets and ends with Zamioculas samiifolia (ZZ to its friends) which has “no flowers but bulletproof.”

When to do what is often a big question for gardeners as we go through the year and the UMass Extension Garden Calendar for 2016 is available for $12 each plus $3.50 for mailing, and $2 for each additional calendar up to nine.  It includes one stunning and inspiring plant image for the month, daily gardening tips for our climate, sunrise and sunset times and more.

Between the Rows  December 11, 2015

Root Cellars and Root Vegetables

Root vegetables

Root vegetables at Green Fields Coop

Our Thanksgiving table will include  root vegetables like Yukon Gold potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, beets, parsnips and carrots.

Even the Pilgrims might have had some of these vegetables at the first Thanksgiving. Root vegetables were an important part of the food supply in Europe before canning and freezing were available. Root vegetables were harvested in the fall and stored for winter use without preserving them in some way, like pickling or drying.

When I was a child living on a Vermont farm I remember the bins filled with sand and carrots in the basement. There was also a root cellar dug into a hill beyond the house for potatoes. Added to my aunt’s canning, producing scores of jars of vegetables and fruit, she and my uncle managed to provide their family with a good measure of their family’s diet.

I even kept some carrots and beets in the basement of our Heath house in our early days there. However, a root cellar required more management skills and time than I possessed.  Last year the Heath Agricultural Society held a well attended Cellars and Cave tour, giving visitors from across the valley a look at what is entailed in operating a root cellar. Some cellars were used for vegetables, some for cheese, and some for homemade hard cider.

The cellars varied in complexity from what was essentially a large insulated closet in the garage for storing apples, onions and potatoes, to a more elaborate walled off corner of a basement that included a window and a flexible duct that made it possible to adjust airflow and temperature. Setting up a site with fairly consistent or adjustable chill and humidity is essential for a root cellar.

Those who are planning to try and keep vegetables and fruit like apples through even a part of the winter must begin by choosing vegetable varieties and apples that are most amenable to storage. For example, the McIntosh apple harvest is usually over in October, but the apples will only keep well through December. Other apples like the old New England Baldwin apple and newer varieties like Fuji will keep through the winter. Many of the old winter keepers are now more available than they were in the recent past.    The same is true for vegetables. Kennebec and Katahdin are among the list of good potatoes for storage, as Danvers and Scarlet Keeper are good storage carrots. Most catalogs will tell you which particular varieties will store well into the winter.

Root Cellaring: The Simple No-Processing Way to Store Fruits and Vegetables by Mike and Nancy Buble is a comprehensive book for those who are interested in storing some of their winter harvest. They give information about choosing specific crops, storage requirements, and the many ways of building a root cellar. My copy dates back to 1979, not long before we set up our first bins. Root Cellaring is still available and still a functional tool.

Most of us are happy to have a summer garden, enjoying freshly picked lettuce and tomatoes, as well as green beans, summer squash and peas of many varieties. Others of us will enjoy the challenge and satisfaction of setting up a root cellar, and eating our own root crops or other keepers like cabbage and Brussels sprouts.

I spoke to Dave Jackson at the 100 acre Enterprise Farm in Whately about how he keeps root crops. He says he uses a large walk in cooler. During the good weather the cooler keeps his summer vegetables fresh before they are packed up into CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) shares. In the winter he uses the cooler for vegetable storage, getting as much value as possible out of the farm’s infrastructure. When I was the Buckland Librarian I bought apples from the Scott Orchard, saw their enormous cooling room and got my first understanding of the way orchardists handle their harvest. Vegetable farmers have the same need.

Jackson agreed that local consumers are looking for more local food over a longer season. He said local farmers have found a variety of ways of keeping root crops available, from the basic old-fashioned root cellar to cooling rooms and solar power. All cold storage options need to keep a consistent cold temperature, usually between 36 to 45 degrees, depending on the crop.

Jackson also gave me a tip, in case I ever take up root cellaring again. He said apples should never be stored with carrots. I knew that apples produce ethylene gas that might cause other fruits to ripen more quickly, but I did not know that the ethylene gas might change the flavor of other fruits – or vegetables. I guess that is why our refrigerator produce drawers are marked to keep fruits and vegetables separate.

Greenfield’s farmer’s market used to be in business from May through October. Happily for us, local farmers have worked to meet our desire for more local food over a longer season. I attended the first Wintermarket in February of 2008. At this year’s second winter farmer’s market  I bought squash, parsnips, beets and carrots  and look forward to the next markets in December, January, February and March!

I see the growth of farmer’s markets, CSA farms, and roadside stands giving us a growing and stronger local food security. That is something to be thankful for.

Between the Rows   November 28, 2015

Time to Compost – Harvest the Biomass on the Ground

Front yard leaves - biomass

Front yard leaves – biomass

As far as I am concerned the leaves that fall in the fall tra-la are as welcome as the flowers that bloom in the spring. When I lived high on a windy hill in Heath all the leaves blew away. I helped a neighbor rake leaves, and took them away to my compost pile. I loved picking up a few bags of leaves that people left in front of their houses when I came into Greenfield to shop. I needed leaves for my compost pile. Now that I live in Greenfield I no longer have to go begging for autumn leaves.

If you have never set up a compost pile there are books like Let it Rot by Stu Campbell devoted to composting; many garden books give information about composting; and locally we have the Franklin County Waste Management District to give us directions about composting online at franklincountywastedistrict.org/composting.html.

After reading all the instructions my advice is not to worry about details too much and just begin. Compost is all about rotting organic material. Fast or slow the result is the same. So, just begin.

Don’t worry about ratios. Some directions seem to imagine us building a compost pile after we have been collecting enough green material like fresh grass clippings or spent annuals or other clippings, and sufficient brown materials like manure or dead leaves before we start our compost pile. Meat and bones are always forbidden. A compost pile should measure at least four feet high and wide. Sufficient size is necessary to build up heat in the rotting pile that will help break materials down and kill harmful pathogens and weed seeds. Explicit instructions like that have been known to stop me in my tracks.

Leaves - Biomass in the backyard November 10.

Leaves – Biomass in the backyard November 10.

Fall is a great time to start a compost pile because dried leaves, spent annuals and all the trimmings from cutback perennials make a good start for a compost pile. Alternate layers if you have green and brown materials, but don’t worry about it. Be sure to water the pile. A moist pile, not a drenched pile, will break down more quickly.

Compost directions always say to turn the pile periodically and that is certainly good advice, if not always easy to carry out. Some gardeners have the space and the forethought to build a three bin compost pile made out of cinder blocks or chicken wire or wooden slats. They begin the pile in space number one and when the space is full they turn the pile into space number two.  When number one is again full, fork number two into number three, and number one into number two. Then start filling number one. By the time number one is full again the composting materials in space number three should be ready to spread or dig into the soil. Continue in this manner forever.

I have seen an inexpensive compost aerator tool that you plunge into the pile. The tool has a long handle with little paddles at the bottom. When you pull the aerator out of the pile the paddles loosen and stir up the compost, letting in some air.

I have admired many compost piles, but mine have never been lovely or organized to look at. However they have made completed compost that helped me improve my Heath soil for over 30 years. Now I am beginning to improve my very poor, very heavy Greenfield soil.

I started with compost that I bought and we are lucky that we have Martin’s Farm right in Greenfield that composts on a major scale and sells compost, mulch, compo-mulch, and loam. Nearby is Bear Path Farm in Whately, also selling good compost. I needed to get my new garden off to a good start; compost and mulch were the way to do that.

Now that it is fall I am starting my own composting efforts in earnest. This summer I bought an Earth Machine compost bin at the Greenfield Transfer Station. I began by putting in weeds and kitchen scraps. Now I’m adding leaves that provide some real bulk. We also had some scrap fence wire and used it to build a special leaf compost container. It is about five feet tall and 4 feet in diameter. It is full of leaves, but they are already breaking down and we can keep adding leaves.

Cold compost pile

Cold Compost pile

Many years ago when Larry Lightner of Northfield was still alive and gardening he taught me about what he called cold composting with leaves. He made wire rings about three to four feet high and as large in diameter as he wished. He filled and refilled these rings with leaves over the course of the fall. In the spring the pile would have  shrunk substantially. He added more leaves if he had them. Then he would make an indentation in the leaves, fill it with a quart or so of good soil and plant vegetable or flower starts. It is important to keep plants in a cold compost bed well watered.

Lightner’s cold compost beds were essentially raised beds. They provided plenty of nutrition for his chosen plants. He could even plant and stake tomatoes on the outside of the wire ring. Their roots found plenty of sustenance from the nutrients going into the soil as the leaves broke down. The raised beds also kept neighborhood dogs and cats out of his garden beds.

I have another friend who told me she has an electric leaf shredder. Shredding leaves will certainly help leaves break down more quickly. She wants to use those shredded leaves as winter mulch on her garden beds. In the spring she told me they have pretty much turned into soil. Not much is left of the leaves at all.

There are many ways to make and use compost. It is a never fail project. It is a rewarding project. It is a project that benefits the garden, and keeps material out of the landfill or incinerator. Compost!

Another good link http://www.mass.gov/eea/docs/dep/recycle/cmppstr.pdf

Between the Rows   November 14, 2015

Thank you all for bearing with me while we hammered out the technical difficulties that kept the commonweeder off line for a few days.

American Sycamore

 

American sycamore

Our American sycamore and her sister across the street

One of the blessings of our new Greenfield house is the tall and majestic American sycamore which gives the front of the house shade and helps cool it in summer. My husband Henry and I have never had such a large domestic tree. New York’s residential trees cannot be too big, and the big trees in Heath were nowhere near the house. They were wild trees in the woods.

We were told that the tree was a sycamore, but the mottled bark made me wonder whether it was a plane tree. It was when we turned to the Internet to find out why Henry was coughing so much when he was out raking leaves (that seemed to have fallen all at once over night) that I found my answer. Our research confirmed that our tree is an American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) and not an Oriental plane tree (Platanus orientalis, or a London plane tree which is a hybrid of the two, probably created in the late seventeenth century.

The American sycamore is native to Eastern North America and is known as the tree with the greatest girth. After 200-300 years it may become hollow and there are tales of colonial families making a temporary shelter of that hollow tree. There is also a tale of 15 horsemen, and their horses, taking shelter in a hollow sycamore, but that sounds more like a campfire story than a piece of recorded history. Sunderland is proud of their giant sycamore tree which has a girth of over 24 feet and was alive when  our American Constitution was signed.

Though these three trees are similar, 100 feet or more, grow rapidly, have mottled bark and ball shaped fruit, there are differences. The American sycamore’s bark is rough and grooved near the base and the bark in the upper limbs and branches is thin and brittle. As the tree grows and branches rapidly gain greater size over the season the thin bark cracks and falls off the tree. Then the gray/white underbark is exposed. The whole London plane tree has mottled bark with an underbark that is a pale yellow or green shade. In both cases the exfoliation is caused by the rapid growth of the limbs and the thinness of the bark. At least that is a theory. It has been pointed out that there are other trees like the shagbark hickory that have exfoliating bark, but they do not grow as quickly, and the bark has more time to grow  with the limbs.  I have always said there are many mysteries in the garden.

Mottled bark of American sycamore

Mottled bark of American sycamore

The ball shaped fruits which do not contain seeds, are called buttonballs and grow singly from a single stem on the American sycamore. Two fruits grow on a single stem on the London plane tree.

Because of these fruits the American sycamore is sometimes called a buttonball tree, and it was under a buttonball that the agreement to form the New York Stock Exchange was signed in 1792. That document is even called the Buttonball Agreement, so the sycamore has its place in our country’s history.

The tree may also have its place in many family histories. The sycamore has such a long life span that a sycamore was often called a ‘bride and groom’ tree when it was planted in front of a newlywed’s house, symbolic of a wish for a long and happy life together.

My further researches explained that the wood of the sycamore has many uses, for flooring, chopping blocks, good furniture and sometimes sliced into veneers that are then glued together forming plywood. It can also serve an even humbler use when it is ground up for particle board. American sycamores grow fast and can be coppiced. That means that when a sycamore is cut down, new branches will grow from the stump. They will grow until they can be cut again. Coppicing is an ancient technique for getting new wood and timber out of the same roots. Birch can be coppiced again and again every four years or so for small firewood, but oak can be coppiced every 50 years for poles and timber.

I learned a lot about sycamores but not what was making my husband cough.

I soldiered on with my research and gave my botanical vocabulary a workout. The large coarse leaves of sycamores are palmately veined which is to say the main veins originate from the leafstalk which is also called the petiole.  In the spring the underside of these leaves area are covered with tiny hairs called pubescence. These tiny hairs begin to be shed in mid season and continue until abscission which is when the leaves lose their grip and fall. It is these hairs that cause irritation when breathed in when raking or doing other pruning or maintenance.

The sycamore also produces seeds that are called achenes because the seed is covered with a hard coating. The winged seeds that maple trees produce (remember sticking them on your nose or twirling them into helicopters when you were a kid) are also achenes. Actually, the maple achenes have their own special name; they are samaras. The sycamore seeds are attached to more little hairs that act as parachutes that will carry at least some of the seeds away on the wind.

I do love learning new words even though I may not use that new word ever again.

The tiny hairs cause irritation. It is not clear to me what it is about the hairs that make them irritants. My research only took me so far.

I am happy with our beautiful tree, and even with the leaves because they provide biomass for my compost. Wearing masks while raking is a small price to pay.

Between the Rows November 7, 2015