Recently at the Greenfield Library I saw a small book on the best seller shelf, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries From a Secret World. It looked like a quiet book with its creamy cover and drawing of three trees, with roots gently touching. The idea that plants can hear and talk is not new. I know of experiments with classroom or greenhouse plants, providing classical or rock music, talking to the plants encouragingly, or insulting them, all to see if these different approaches affect the plants differently.
Peter Wohlleben, a German forester and the author of the book, cared for his forests in the standard way in the1980s, but he never felt happy about the kind of thinning he had to do, or the pesticides he had to use. He also believed the science that already existed about the communality of trees.
What makes that communality and communication possible is the web of fungi which grows into and around tree roots, increasing the ability of the tree to gather nutrients and water, and to share those resources with other nearby trees that may be weaker or suffering. The fungi also send chemical and electrical signals. Dr. Suzanne Simard in Nature magazine coined the term Wood Wide Web.
One example of the experiments that were done showed that beeches share resources. In a grove of beeches, even though certain areas had different qualities of soil, it was found that the rate of photosynthesis in all the trees was the same. The trees were not dependent on the sunlight or nutrients gathered individually. The trees were sharing so that every leaf of every tree got the same amount of sugar. Wohlleben worked with oak and beech forests. It doesn’t stretch the imagination too much to think that trees in close proximity could communicate and help each other. Of course there is more to the book than that, and I recommend it.
By the time we left our 60 acres in Heath about half the acreage was mixed woodland, mostly white pine and some hardwoods. We had loggers come in twice during our 35 years there to harvest the white pine and some hardwood for firewood. It was fairly young woodland, and it increased over time. A field west of the house was adjacent to a stand of white pines to its west. The wind blew pine seeds into the field creating a substantial new stand of white pine.
The forester told us that the new stand of pines was very healthy with no white pine weevil in evidence. I had been keen to show myself a responsible forest owner and talked to our forester about thinning. The trees were young enough that I could go out with our Christmas tree saw. He strongly discouraged me. He said it was too hard to know which trees to take out, which were weaker. So no work of that sort was done.
I thought maybe the forester shared my motto that procrastination is the gardener’s friend, but I never imagined that he might be considering the benefits that the trees in our pine grove offered each other.
Our Greenfield property has two trees that made it very appealing. We first saw the house in wintery March, but the tall Norway spruce in the northwestern corner was dignified and stately.
Then while we were going through the buying process the horsechestnut tree came into beautiful bloom. The view from the kitchen window is pure delight. Next to the horsechestnut are two slim hemlocks. I can’t help wondering if these trees communicate with each other even if they are not the same species.
Syringa, lilac tree, and sycamore in mid-May
My husband was more taken by the very tall sycamore or buttonball tree that grows in front of the house on the street side of the sidewalk. It is very impressive. On the opposite side of the sidewalk is a lilac tree. It is a true syringa and produces airy white blossoms, not really like lilac flowers, but breathing out a delicious fragrance that catches everyone’s attention as they walk by. Two very different trees. Could the tall and imposing sycamore have anything to say to the smaller, flowery lilac tree? Those sycamore roots travel far. We have hit them when planting perennials some distance away. Those roots could easily embrace and whisper to the lilac so close by.
We have planted new trees in the backyard, part of my low maintenance garden plan. Two river birch trees don’t mind flood season in the garden. The weeping cherry is planted nearer to the house which is less apt to be flooded. These three trees are doing nicely.
Last year I planted a small pagoda dogwood, chosen for the sculptural arrangement of its branches. It too is near the house but it’s too early to see how it has come through the winter.
Surely the birches will bond, but will they have any interest in the cherry or dogwood? I think the birches are gentlemanly and I will be watching to see if they show any care for the pretty ladies, or if they will leave them to their sighs and fans, like ladies in cocktail party corners, longing for someone to come and make conversation?
When you look out your windows what trees do you see? Do you think they are paying any attention to each other? It is hard to tell but maybe it is possible, even if they come from different branches of the tree family. I hope so.
Between the Rows April 1, 2017
Jay Vinskey, Master Gardener
Jay Vinskey gave a useful workshop on Underutilized Trees and Shrubs at the WMMGA Spring Garden Symposium last weekend. I attended because I may not be quite finished choosing shrubs for our new Greenfield garden and I was looking for more suggestions. Small trees and shrubs are the elements I am counting on to make this a sustainable, low maintenance garden.
Vinskey’s list included trees like paperbark maple, tupelo, ironwood, redbud, stewartia, and pagoda dogwood. His shrub list included beautyberry, Carolina allspice, fringe tree, witch hazel, and redvein enkianthus. Vinskey chose these because of their fine attributes of bark, blossom and autumn color or winter interest. Happily for me I had already planted some of his suggestions.
It is important to know that Vinskey chose plants that were hardy in our region. The USDA lists Greenfield as zone 5b which means plants will survive winter temperatures as low as -15 to -10. Nowadays I have to wonder whether we might actually be in zone 6a which is -10 to -5 and I would be willing to take a gamble on a slightly more tender plant like stewartia.
It is also important to know how much shade or sun a plant needs to thrive. However, I also have to take into account that my garden is very wet at least during late winter and early spring, even when we are having a drought. While listening to Vinskey I was happy that I had already planted pagoda dogwood and Carolina allspice in my garden. The pagoda dogwood is a small tree with a very horizontal arrangement of branches. The flowers are small and not particularly notable, but the sculptural shape of the tree is the delight. I saw a beautiful specimen in Minneapolis last summer; the tree’s gardener told me it did require some regular pruning to keep that clean shape at its best.
Calycanthus or Carolina allspice is a shrub that can take a fair amount of shade and produces dramatic dark red blossoms from May into July. And, of course, there is the sweet fragrance.
In addition I’ve planted buttonbush, elderberry, spicebush and winterberry shrubs, which I personally think of as underutilized. Perhaps some gardeners would consider them too wild for a cultivated garden.
My perennial list includes joe pye weed, boneset, culver’s root, Echinacea, American burnet, turtlehead, bee balm, Siberian irises Japanese primroses, and bog rosemary which is a water tolerant ground cover. You can see that in a sense I have been cultivating a wetland garden. These plants don’t need to be in wet ground all the time, but they thrive when the soil is moist, or water is puddling around their feet. Some are familiar to flower gardeners, but others are more unusual although those who love native flowers may find them familiar.
Monarda or bee balm with bee
The fact that I have so many native plants in my garden is because I wanted plants attractive to bees and other pollinators including butterflies. Having a pollinator garden is one of my goals. Because honeybees and other pollinators are under so much attack by the use, and often overuse, of herbicides and pesticides I want to play my part in supporting these vital creatures. Without pollinators many of our vegetables and fruits would no longer exist.
Bee Spaces Pollinator Garden Award
This year there will be a special opportunity and event at the Langstroth Bee Festival on Saturday, June 3. The Second Congregational Church, which this year is celebrating its 200th anniversary, has cooperated with the Franklin County Beekeepers Association for several years creating a bee festival that will entertain and educate children, and all the rest of us too, about honey bees and the 300 odd other native bees that work hard to make sure we have good vegetables and fruits to eat.
Greenfield has a very special connection to honeybees because the Reverend Lorenzo Langstroth served as the Second Congregational Church’s minister from 1840-1848. He is one of the people who recognized ‘bee space’, the specific distance that honeybees leave between their honeycombs so that they could fill, or empty them. He also invented the modern wooden beehive that allows for ‘bee space’ between the removable frames.
This year, in honor of the church’s anniversary, special celebratory events are scheduled for the Bee Festival. Kim Flottam, editor in chief of Bee Culture Magazine and author of several books on beekeeping, will be the main speaker.
For those who do not keep bees, but welcome bees to their gardens the Second Congregational Church and the Franklin County Beekeeping Association will present awards to home gardens, farms, public or community gardens or businesses that provide some space for bees. Former Governor Deval Patrick will be on hand to present the awards. The award itself is a beautiful pottery plaque designed and made by the well known potter Molly Cantor. It is designed to be placed on a house or business, “designating you as a pollinator friendly garden of distinction.”
Rudbeckia, black eyed susans are another good bee plant
Those who are interested in this award should fill out an application. Requirements are that the garden be in Franklin County, and that no pesticides or herbicides can be used anywhere on the property. For more information check out the Bee Spaces pages on Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram.
This is the kick off of the award, so if you think your garden might need a little updating to be eligible remember that there is always next year, and the Second Annual Bee Spaces Award.
Between the Rows March 25, 2017
Water is life! That is the cry that was repeated when Kandi Mossett finished her keynote address at the Local Environmental Action Conference last Sunday. Mossett, of Mandan, Hidsata and Arikara tribal heritage, is a leading voice in the fight to the impacts that environmental injustice are having on indigenous communities across our country.
We all know about the stand taken at Standing Rock in North Dakota to keep an oil pipeline from crossing sacred lands and under the lake that supplies water to the tribe, threatening the safety of that water supply. The protest has gotten a lot of press over the past months, but Mossett filled us in on the terrifying context and damage done to land and water over past years.
Oil wells and fracking have been going on for years. One result is that contaminated fracking water has been trucked to manmade ponds that are not reliable and have leaks. These spills kill plants and soil. One farmer’s whole field was destroyed. The river where people fished turned blue, signifying a deoxygenating algae bloom that killed the fish. Mossett showed us a photo of 18 inch ‘frack sox’ filter. These are radioactive and not disposed of properly, and sometimes are picked up by children. Babies are affected by the hydrogen sulphide poisonous gas.
The idea that the Standing Rock protest is just about the building of a pipeline does not begin to tell the story of lands taken, soil and water already contaminated, and health consequences of fracking. Mossett herself is a cancer survivor.
As we all know, the protest has not prevented the pipeline. Mossett tell all who have ever fought for justice, “You’re not guaranteed change when you make your voice heard against injustice; but you are guaranteed to fail if you choose to remain silent.”
Mossett continues to fight for justice for indigenous people and you can find more information at the Indigenous Environmental Network http://indigenousrising.org/KandiMossett.
In the afternoon Lois Gibbs was the keynote speaker. In 1978 she founded the Love Canal Homeowners Associate. Happily, more than half of the audience understood instantly what that meant.
When Gibbs, who had a toddler son, noticed that many children in the neighborhood were becoming ill, she investigated and found that the school and the neighborhood were built on a toxic landfill. She and other parents attended town committee meetings and asked them to do something, confident that this information would move them to action. But nothing happened she said. No action was taken.
She went to the town again, but their decision was based on a cost/benefit analysis of the neighborhood and the earnings of the 100 or so families living there. Earnings of men and their sons were calculated over the years, but women and daughters were not considered to have any earnings and were worth nothing. “Can you imagine? The women were worth nothing?” Gibbs said to her audience.
Gibbs’ group then turned to science and created a survey that showed that 56% of the children had birth defects, counted the number of illnesses and miscarriages. Their study was dismissed as ‘useless housewife data by people who have a vested interest.’ The town finally did their own study and got the same information but declared that this was simply a random cluster of genetically defective people.
Then Gibbs said they misbehaved. They got town officials to come to a meeting at her house for more discussion and served cookies and coffee. Then we told them they could not leave until they promised to do something to remove all the families and give them new homes. “We held them hostage.” The men made phone calls, one of which brought a sharp shooter to keep watch through the window. After 5 hours they said they would work something out. But Gibbs and her group told them they if they did not have a plan in place by Wednesday at noon, three days hence, they would be very sorry.
The media was told of the deadline and there was great tension, but exactly at noon on Wednesday it was agreed. By a month later many of the families had been evactuated and the rest followed soon after.
Gibbs’ toddler daughter who was conceived and born while they lived at LoveCanal had been extremely ill through all this, but she said her daughter and her son were fully recovered after two years living elsewhere. Her daughter has even given her three healthy grandchildren.
Gibbs’ advice was that people who want to bring about change need science and the law. She said to fight politically, never violently and always to stand together.
I did not to attend the workshop about Flint Water because we are fortunate in Greenfield to have good clean drinking water, and a town website with water and sewer divisions. Water testing results are posted there.
I did attend Dirty Water: Increasing Community Capacity in the Face of Drinking Water Contamination with Emerging Chemicals. The emerging chemicals we focused on were polyflourinated water contaminants like PFCs, PFAS, PFOA, etc. These are chemicals that can spread through the soil and get into water systems from factories. Testing is difficult and expensive, they cannot be boiled away from drinking water like bacteria, and they can be absorbed through your skin from upholstery or carpeting materials, and by bathing or taking a hot shower which will allow you to inhale the chemical. The workshop did not solve any problems, but pointed out the problems that need solving.
Water is Life! We must guard and protect our nation’s water supply. Toxic Actions and Massachusetts Climate Action Network hosted this excellent conference.
Between the Rows March 11, 2017
Mount Holyoke College Spring Flower Show
The Mount Holyoke College Spring Flower Show is blooming and continues through Sunday, March 19. The Greenhouse is open from 10 am – 4 pm.
Winter had come back to give us a ferocious bite on the day I met Tom Clark, the new Director of the Mount Holyoke Botanic Garden. We walked through the Talcott Greenhouse door into the fragrant woodland glade of this spring’s Flower Show. The title of the show, Spring Pools, refers to the three pools that lie beneath flowering trees (or at least their branches) surrounded by the little bulbs of early spring.
I am always fascinated by the work that goes into putting on an exhibit like this. Bulbs have to be ordered the summer before and then the imaginative greenhouse team chooses a theme and creates the design. After the bulbs are potted up in the fall the long schedule begins of bringing them into life and into a period of early bloom, but not too full bloom, begins. Once the shoots are up it takes careful monitoring of light and temperature in Talcott Greenhouse so that most of the bulbs will be at an early stage of bloom which will last for the two weeks of the Mount Holyoke College Flower Show.
Primroses at the Mount Holyoke College Spring Flower Show
At this point in the show the hyacinths were providing most of the fragrance, but many unusual varieties of small daffodils, glory of the snow, low-growing windflowers in white and blue, pansies, muscari, and tender primroses surrounded the placid pools while ranked plantings on the sides of the greenhouse included larger plants like the Vancouver Centennial geranium with its small red blossoms, and the fat spotted blossoms of calceolaria. Ends of the room were lavishly filled with camellias, blooming witch hazel, canary broom, freesias, orchids and annual schizianthus with its beautiful flowers in stunning and gentle colors.
The show was all ready for its opening on March 4 and Tom Clark had time to chat and show me around. Clark, a Hadley native, had worked for the MountHolyokeBotanic Garden for 12 years, developing and caring for various gardens across the campus as well as responsibilities in Talcott Greenhouse until 2006 when he left to become Curator of the Polly Hill Arboretum on Martha’s Vineyard.
Thomas Clark, Director of the Mount Holyoke College Botanic Garden
Last fall Clark returned to Mount Holyoke as Director of the Mount Holyoke Botanic Garden, an area of three acres or so around the greenhouse. His return occurred at the time the Botanic Garden was leaving the purview of Facilities and Management and moving to the Academic side. “I thought this was a reaffirmation of the full value of the Botanic Garden,” Clark said.
Talcott Greenhouse and the Spring Flower Show are a small part of the purpose of the Botanic Garden. Clark explained that while the greenhouse staff does not teach horticulture classes the staff is a resource for students, mostly from biology and environmental studies. Some students may have their own research projects and there is room in the greenhouse for their use.
He explained that the gardens, indoors and out, are not just about providing pretty flowers and spoke passionately about the staff’s “obligation to preserve plants.”
As an example he told me about the Franklinia altamaha tree which is no longer to be found in the wild, only in cultivation. This tree was discovered along the banks of the Altamaha River in Georgia by William Bartram in 1765. Bartram was the son of John Bartram, a self taught botanist who collected seeds and plants, propagating them in his Philadelphia nursery, creating the most varied collection of North American plants in existence at that time. Many of these plants and seeds were sold to estate owners in England. William Bartram named the tree for Ben Franklin who was a good family friend. All the Franklinia trees that grow today come from Bartram’s collection of trees and seed.
Mount Holyoke has a Franklinia tree. Because it is only hardy to zone 5 and Massachusetts is at the edge of its range a protected spot will be chosen for planting. Clark explained that by telling the stories behind plants visitors to the Botanic Garden will better understand their history and their importance.
Because of his dedication to the need for conservation and preservation of endangered plants Clark acquired young plants of two of the rarest plants in North America. The Florida yew (Taxus floridiana) only grows in a small area of Florida. The Florida Torreya, (Torreya taxifolia), is also a yew which has been attacked by a Florida fungus. Both are listed as endangered species. Clark will grow his small plants in the greenhouse for some years before thinking about a place for them in the garden. The goal is to see if they can be preserved outside their natural range.
Beyond the flower show there is a room featuring succulents of all sizes, and the conservatory filled with familiar orchids and begonias as well as many large and small tropical plants. This is a world of plants, a world of history, a world of stories and conservation. Flowers are pretty, but they are not the reason for the Mount Holyoke Botanic Garden’s existence.
Calceolaria or pocketbook plant – boun to cheer us
The Mount Holyoke Flower Show will continue through Sunday, March 19. Talcott Greenhouse is open every day from 10 am – 4 pm. The show is free, but I am sure donations are always welcome.
The Bulb Show at Smith College also continues at the Lyman Plant House every day through March 19, from 10 am – 4 pm. Suggested donation is $5.
Between the Rows
Blueberries in a bowl
Time to think about berries. February is National Pie Month and I love fruit pies. Blueberry pie is a longtime favorite. The Benson Place in Heath was my source for low bush blueberries, but I grew a collection of high bush blueberries behind our house. Now in Greenfield I have planted four Nourse Farms high bush blueberries in a square that can be easily netted.
Blueberries are easy to grow and they are long lived. Our Heath high bush berries were still bearing generously after 35 years and demanded very little care.
High bush blueberries, which are the most usual blueberries for the home garden, have few requirements. They need sun, well drained acid soil, and most especially soil with a pH of 4.5 to 5.5. New England is famous for having acid soil, but it is a good idea to have it tested. We can usually find Master Gardeners volunteering to run soil tests in the spring at Farmer’s Markets and other seasonal events. Or you can buy a soil testing kit that will give you a pH reading. If the pH is too high, over 6, you can dig in a measure of sulphur or fertilize with an acidic product like Holly-tone fertilizer.
The biggest problem with blueberries is the birds. I had not taken this into consideration when I first planted blueberries more than 35 years ago, but my four new blueberries are planted in a 10×10 foot grid, which will be a little tight as they grow, but it will be easy to build a simple frame and enclose the bushes with netting as the berries start to ripen. I also recommend giving the berry patch or row a woodchip mulch. I pruned out dead branches when necessary, but that is pretty much the extent of care needed.
Blueberries do best when they can cross pollinate, and there are enough cultivars that ripen at different tines giving you a longer season. Duke is an early season berry, as are Bluegold and Patriot, all ready for harvest mid-to late July. Chandler and Darrow can be harvested into mid- August and Elliot will be fruiting into September. Of course, harvest periods may vary with your site and the year’s weather.
Blueberries have the added advantages of having delicate little bell-shaped blossoms in the spring and vibrant color in the fall. No need for the illegal burning bush.
Raspberries are about as easy to grow as blueberries, but they require a higher pH, between 5.6 and 6.2. As with any planting, the soil should be improved with compost before planting. The recommendation is that raspberry rows should be spaced 8 feet apart, but I have to admit that I never gave myself that much room between the rows. Raspberries will ripen in July; each variety will have a harvest period of about three weeks so it is good to choose at least two varieties to give you a longer harvest.
Latham is a standard variety that has been around for a long time and is a good berry for eating fresh or made into jam. There are other new varieties like Encore, another red raspberry, as well as Royalty, a purple variety, and Anne that produces pale yellow fruits with a good flavor. Royalty and Anne are ready for harvest late in the season.
Once they have fruited the raspberry canes should be cut back down to the ground. New shoots will come up in the spring. Eventually those increasing numbers of new shoots will wander into the paths and need to be cut down as well. When the rows simply become crowded or some canes look flimsy they can be removed as well. I am only talking about regular summer bearing raspberries. I have never been organized enough to tackle the pruning schedule for everbearing berries which need to be pruned twice.
There is no need for netting. Apparently birds are not particularly interested in raspberries.
I have not talked at all about black raspberries which propagate by sending out long wicked spiny canes that root when they touch the ground. Obviously, with attention and some work they can be managed, but I was quickly overwhelmed by my black raspberries in Heath. The flexible thorny canes had a life of their own and grew exuberantly. I found it hard to prune and manage them; even getting rid of the prunings was a chore.
For all that I never even got much of a harvest. When I called the good people at Nourse Farm as to what might be causing the shrivelling of my berries before they finished ripening, they though the problem might be insufficient watering. In Heath our water came from a well and I did not have sufficient for watering more than I did. I mention all this because I do not want anyone to think that black raspberries require the same care as red and golden raspberries. The first clue to their difference is that Latham and the other raspberries I’ve mentioned should be spaced 18 inches apart, but black raspberries need to be spaced 3 feet apart.
There are many other berries that can thrive in a backyard garden, but blackberries, strawberries, pineberries which are actually a white strawberry that tastes a little like a pineapple, lingonberries, and currants will have to wait for another day.
Between the Rows February 18, 207
Crocus on the Bridge of Flowers mid April
As I write I don’t know what Punxatawny Phil saw or said the other day. If he saw his shadow we will have a long winter. If he did not see his shadow we will have an early spring. February 2 is half way between the Solstice, the first and shortest day of winter, and the Spring Equinox, first day of spring when night and day are equal in length. So since we are halfway to spring it is pretty much a crapshoot.
Last year Phil predicted an early spring, but according to my records it got very cold after February 2, with below zero temperatures. Still there was no more snow, only rain until we had a light snow on the first day of spring. In all fairness, it had all melted by the end of the day. Does that count as an early spring? I think it probably does. Our backyard garden was clear of snow on Groundhog Day, but on February 25 it was flooded because of the rains, and because the heavy clay soil was frozen. Yet on March 20, the first day of spring, buds were swelling on the shrubs in the South Border and I went shopping for more shrubs.
There were no flowers in my garden in the early spring of 2016, and once again last fall I missed the chance to buy the little bulbs that would give me the earliest spring blooms this year. However, I know I can soon put in my order for fall delivery, and not miss out again. By the first of April when the Bridge of Flowers opens, crocuses are the first blossoms dotting the beds. I want crocuses and more.
The crocus is often what first comes to mind when people think of the earliest spring blooming bulbs. There are two types of crocus. Species crocus are smaller, and bloom earlier than the showier large crocus, but all are deer and rodent resistant, and all will increase and colonize.
Species crocus come in all the familiar shades of white, gold, lavender, and violet. The tommasinianus, tommies, crocus have small blossoms, but the squirrels will not dig them up, and they will increase energetically.
The large crocus have the same color palette but they also have richer purple shades and the very showy large Yellow Mammoth. Crocuses can be planted through the fall, and into November.
Scillas on the Bridge of Flowers
I grew Glory of the Snow, scillas and grape hyacinths in Heath. The joy of these little bulbs is that they will spread, sometimes in inexplicable ways. Starry flowered Chionodoxa, comes in shades blue, pink and white and is only 5 or 6 inches tall.
Scillas or Siberian squills have delicate blue blossoms. People often plant them in the lawn where they bloom early in April and look like a piece of the sky has fallen on the grass. The foliage dies and disappears by the time the lawn has to be mowed. Remember with any bulb that the foliage must be given time to drink lots of sun so the bulbs can renew themselves and produce even more flowers the next year.
I especially loved the grape hyacinths because they produced a larger, more vibrant blossom that made a bigger show. I grew the deep blue variety, but a look through any catalog will show you that they come in paler blue shades, in pale pink, white and even yellow. Some have two shades like Mount Hood which is deep blue with a white topknot.
I wanted to grow snowdrops just because of the name and then I loved the way they survived early spring snow falls. After growing them in the lawn for a while I moved some of them “in the green” which is to say when they are beginning to bloom, to a spot in front of the house in front of a low stone wall which created a bit of a heat sink. They bloomed even earlier and where I could enjoy them more fully.
I don’t believe I have ever seen a garden with anemone blanda, three to six inch daisy-like plants, but I think they would make a beautiful spring groundcover. They come in shades of blue, pink and white. These can be counted on to be blooming in mid May.
Any of the little bulbs, the ones that bloom earliest in spring need to be planted in masses to make any kind of show, and often come in bags of 25, 50 or 100 at modest cost. The easiest way to plant them is to dig up your chosen patch of soil, loosen and remove some of the soil and put it aside to be enriched with some compost. After they have been scattered so they are a few inches apart most of these bulbs will need to be covered with about four inches of soil.
Most of these early bulbs make a good underplanting for flowers that will come later. By the time your other perennials are putting out flowers the foliage of the little bulbs will have dried up and disappeared.
Smith College Spring Bulb Show
If you don’t have the patience to wait for your own bulbs, or your neighbor’s, to bloom remember the spring flower shows at Smith College and Mount Holyoke College will begin just a month from today on March 4 and run until March 19. Walking through the fragrant aisles of these carefully forced hyacinths, tulips and daffodils is just the reminder we need to remember that the first day of spring will arrive the day after the shows close. Mark your calendars!
Between the Rows February 4, 2017
Permaculture Promise by Jono Neiger
I first became aware of something called permaculture quite some years ago. You’d think it wouldn’t be too hard to understand a word like that which includes the words permanent and agriculture. But, sad to say, I couldn’t figure it out. I spent some years of my childhood on a Vermont farm and there was nothing of a permanent nature that I could remember.
The first book I found about permaculture was a hefty tome that described permaculture as being based on the forest. This made no sense to me. How can you have farming in a forest. Finally, I did come to understand that the term forest farming had more to do with the practice of having layers of growth, like tree, shrub, then low growing plants.
Happily, Jono Neiger, of the Regenerative Design Group in Greenfield, has written The Permaculture Promise: What Permaculture Is and How it Can Help Us (Storey Publishing $16.95), a beautifully understandable book about permaculture on gardens and farms, plus the ways that permaculture and its principles can help us build a more resilient future. After a brief introduction Neiger launches into a series of 22 short chapters that begin with the words Permaculture Can.
These chapters cover the topics you might expect like “Permaculture can ‘create self-fertile soil”, and “turn waste into food”, but these are followed by chapters on larger, more unexpected topics including: “create more livable cities, stabilize our food supply, help reverse climate change, and you can become a better designer of landscapes and of life.” Photographs illustrate the techniques that are being used.
One example that Neiger uses to show the ways that permaculture can be used are at Sue Bridge’s Wildside Cottage in Conway. I have visited Bridge who built a small energy efficient house powered by the sun, a root cellar for storing her harvests, and a small greenhouse. Neiger designed the terraces for growing vegetables and herbs, as well as a hillside planted with fruit trees and a fertility bank. A fertility bank consists of a variety of plants including comfrey and sweet fern that are called accumulators because their deep roots accumulate nutrients from the soil are and store them in their leaves. The plants can then be harvested and used as fertilizer.
A wet meadow was transformed into a rice paddy which amazed me. The Wildside site is productive in every way – for Bridge, the animals and pollinators that make use of it, and the visitors who come to learn and marvel.
Neiger gives examples of the way permaculture is being used around the world to collect water, regenerate eroded land, and build a resilient future.
As we built our new garden we used a permaculture technique called hugelkultur. We built a hugel. Hugel is a German word for mound. We begged our hilltown friends for logs, then built our mound by putting the logs on the ground and covering them with soil. Thank heaven for Martin’s compost farm. Our hugel is about 20 inches high, 8 feet wide and 20 feet long. This spring we will finish planting. We all know that buried logs stay wet. The purpose of the hugel is twofold, to capture rainfall and make irrigation unnecessary.
Garden Revolution by Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher
In his new book, Garden Revolution: How our landscapes can be a source of environmental change (Timber Press $39.95) Larry Weaner does not use the word permaculture. However, he has spent the last 30 years designing landscapes that make use of nature’s tendencies instead of imposing a design that does not take into consideration the attributes of the site, or the effect on the gardener.
Garden Revolution, written with Thomas Christopher, the author of many books including Essential Perennials, includes photographs of many of the woodlands and meadows that he has designed, but he explains the ecological principals can guide us in our own modest urban and suburban gardens. One of the most charming stories in the book is the tale of the cardinal flower that came to bring bright beauty to his stone patio. This did not happen overnight. It involved luck, and some very careful observation to see how and why the cardinal flower seed moved around the patio. Careful observation is always smart in the garden.
As knowledgeable as he is Weaner realizes there are many surprises in the garden. He has learned to welcome those changes. For 28 years he has tended his third of an acre garden, and he says every year has brought him a surprise. This is one of the pleasures of the garden. Even experts are not The Boss. Mother Nature is always eager to have her say.
Weaner is aware of the importance of native plants which support the birds, insects and butterflies of our area, but he also understands that the gardener wants an attractive garden, and preferably one that does not require constant labor by the gardener.
The Garden Revolution that Weaner describes is a focus on plantings that work with natural laws, that remain beautiful to our garden loving eyes, and that will mean less labor on the gardener’s part.
In my own garden I am always aware that there is more to learn bout plants, about the interaction between plants and the local wildlife, and about the effect even my little garden has on the environment. I turn to teachers like Neiger and Weaner with gratitude and pleasure.
Between the Rows January 21, 2017
Spice Collection – Christmas Gift
During the holiday season I do a lot of baking and cooking filling the house with spicy aromas. When I received a beautiful box of baking spices as a Christmas gift I got to wondering how far these spices had to travel before they arrived in my kitchen. I was further intrigued by an article in the Sunday New York Times, The World’s History in a Clove Tree by Amitav Ghosh which urged me on to further investigations.
Ghosh began with the Mulaku islands (formerly known as the Moluccas) also known as the Spice Islands, which were the only place in the world where cloves and nutmeg with its covering called mace were grown. These spices are common now but were incredibly expensive for hundreds of years because of their rareness, and rigors of transporting them to Asia and Europe. “Cloves from around 1700 BC have been found at the site of a settlement in Tell Ashara, Syria. To get there, they would have had to travel more than 6000 miles, through the ports of the Indian Ocean and overland through Mesopotamia. At every stop their price would have increased,” Ghosh wrote.
The world of spices is a large one. All of us use pepper (which originated in India) and salt without thinking about them as spices, but even they were prized. Along with cloves and nutmeg, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger and other spices they all traveled over the Silk Road by camel caravans. It was trade along the Silk Road that linked the great areas of China, India, Egypt, Persia, Arabia and Rome for centuries.
Beginning in the 16th century trading companies like the Dutch East India Company and the British East India Company carried spices across the seas and competed violently to create monopolies.
In fact, the Dutch and British companies were such bitter competitors that in 1623 the Dutch beheaded 10 Englishmen along with many others in a mass execution, the Massacre of Amboyna. That caused the British to give up their enterprises in all the Spice Islands except for the island of Run. However, in 1667, the British wanted to reestablish themselves in Manhattan, then New Amsterdam, and the Dutch wanted them totally out of the Spice Islands. The result was an agreement to swap. The Dutch gave the island of Manhattan away to the British who then left RunIsland.
Cumin is among the most ancient spices originating over a large area from the eastern Mediterranean to south Asia. I first encountered cumin on the skewers of barbecued meat prepared by the Beijing Muslims in what we called the Uigher Alley when we lived in China. Those little pieces of spiced meat were delicious. Cumin is made from the seed of the Cuminum cyminum which is then pulverized.
Many of these prized spices were often more important for their medicinal properties, frequently digestive, than for the flavor they brought to the dishes served during the Middle Ages. Over time spices were no longer needed for medicinal remedies or preserving meats.
While many of these spices originated in a particular area it was inevitable that the trees and plants that produced them would spread along the trade routes. Ultimately prices came down and today we can afford all those spices.
Cinnamon may be the spice I use most often in my kitchen. At some point I realized that not all cinnamon tasted the same. In my Christmas box of spices there were two jars of cinnamon. One was labeled China or cassia cinnamon which is mostly grown in Indonesia where the Cinnamomom cassia tree is harvested. The label said it has a stronger fragrance and flavor, and it is the kind used in supermarket brands. The second jar labeled Ceylon cinnamon originated in Sri Lanka, and most of it is still produced there. According to the label it has a milder sweeter flavor and is suitable for coffee and hot chocolate as well as regular baking. Later I learned the only difference is that it is the Sri Lankan tree Cinnamomon verum tree that is harvested.
Baby Ginger from Old Friends Farm, Amherst
We cannot grow many spices here in Massachusetts. However, Old Friends Farm in Amherst grows both ginger and turmeric in unheated hoop houses. The ‘baby’ ginger that they sell at food coops and at farmers markets does not look like the brown roots that show up at the supermarket. Fresh baby ginger does not have the familiar dried skin, but a pink blush on the white root. It is not as fibrous and will not last long once it is harvested but it can be frozen and used as needed.
Old Friends Farm also grows and sells turmeric which is such a staple of many Asian dishes.
We can all plant cilantro which is an herb. Coriander is considered a spice, but coriander is the seed produced by cilantro. Those of us who have grown cilantro know how quickly it produces seed encouraging us to make successive plantings if we want to have a long season of this strongly flavored herb.
One point Ghosh wanted to make is that the thing we call globalization has been around for centuries with international trade flourishing and demanding communication and agreements between nations. I was drawn to the idea that the most common ingredients like pepper and cinnamon in our kitchen traveled far and have long and exotic histories.
Between the Rows January 7, 2017
My Summer in a Garden by Charles Dudley Warner
My Summer in a Garden by Charles Dudley Warner is one of the books I routinely turn to on dreary days of winter when the temperature resists going higher than freezing. Here is what I had to say about the book back in 2002.
“The love of dirt is among the earliest of passions, as it is the latest. Mudpies gratify one of our first and best instincts. So long as we are dirty, we are pure.”
I first read these words a number of years ago while wandering in the stacks at the Williams College Library. There I came across an old and worn volume, bound in green and imprinted with gold, titled My Summer in a Garden by Charles Dudley Warner, published in 1872.
I opened it expecting to find musty and dense essays; instead I found a kindred spirit, a man with a way with an epigram and an abhorrence of ‘pusley’. I checked it out for as long as allowed, but finally had to return it to the library. After that I kept my eye open for a copy at every second hand booksale, but was never successful.
Happily for me and for millions of other gardeners, Modern Library has just put out a new paperback edition of My Summer in a Garden, along with reprints of notable old garden books like The Gardener’s Year by Karel Capek chosen by Michael Pollan who has written a garden book or two of his own.
Charles Dudley Warner, 1975
We gardeners, of whatever era or culture, deal with the same essentials, birth, death, rain, drought, pestilence, beauty, and every sort of harvest. Charles Dudley Warner knows the pleasure of owning a bit of ground, scratching it with a hoe, planting seed and observing the renewal of life. “…this is the commonest delight of the race, the most satisfactory thing a man can do.”
Warner chronicles the pleasures, and irritations of his summer in the garden. He is an irascible gent, railing against ‘pusley’ throughout the garden season. At one point he threatens to petition an ecumenical council to excommunicate pusley, recalling the middle ages when the monks at Clairvaux excommunicated a vineyard because it was not fruitful, as well as an excommunication of rats in Autun, Macon and Lyons. Warner said St. Benedict himself excommunicated the flies in the Monastery of Foigny.
Periodically Warner assesses the morality and desirability of certain plants. “The bean is a graceful, confiding, engaging vine; but you never can put beans into poetry, nor into the highest sort of prose. There is no dignity in the bean. Corn, which in my garden, grows alongside the bean, and, so far as I can see with no affectation of superiority, is, however, the child of song.”
“I feel that I am in the best society when I am with lettuce. It is the select circle of vegetables. The tomato appears well on the table; but you do not want to ask its origin. It is a most agreeable parvenu. Of course, I have said nothing about the berries. They live in another and more ideal region; except, perhaps the currant. Here we see, that, even among berries, there are degrees of breeding. The currant is well enough, clear as truth, and exquisite in color; but I ask you to notice how far it is from the exclusive hauteur of the aristocratic strawberry, and the refinement of the quietly elegant raspberry.”
We learn about his garden practices like setting the strawberry plants, and raspberry bushes about four or five feet apart “to give the cows room to run through when they break into the garden, as they do sometimes.” Cows are not the only pests in the garden, there are children and hens, and birds who steal his peas.
He gives a lot of thought to foiling the thieving birds, and was such a forward thinker, that though it was only 1872, he envisioned a metal pea frame that could be electrified to zap the birds when they landed to dine.
In a philosophical vein, Warner even tackles the question of whether it pays to garden. “Does a sunset pay?” he asks.
He goes on to discuss value. “Shall I set a price upon the tender asparagus or the crisp lettuce, which made the sweet spring a reality? Shall I turn into merchandise the red strawberry, the pale green pea, the high-flavored raspberry, the sanguinary beet, that love-plant the tomato . . .Shall I compute in figures what daily freshness and health and delight the garden yields, let alone the large crop of anticipation I gathered as soon as the first seeds got above ground?”
This is a man who sees the garden whole, in all its parts, and delights us with his perceptions.
Before Charles Dudley Warner went to Hartford to become editor of the Hartford Courant, and sometimes garden columnist, as well as neighbor to Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe, he lived in the Buttonwood Tree house (now Zoar Outdoor) in Charlemont. He was born in Plainfield and was related to George Patch of ShelburneFalls and his wife Margaret.
I did not know much about Charles Dudley Warner, but the novelist Allan Gurganus writes a charming and informational Introduction that places Warner in his time, in his neighborhood and among his friends. He links Warner to the Transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, but says, “Warner ‘cuts’ the sacramental nectar from New England’s high altar with some moonshine out of Mississippi-Missouri. He uses a wry, cranky humor, drifted over the back fence, to cross-pollinate and humanize his prose Emersonian.”
Between the Rows 2002
Janus God of Endings and Beginnings
When Billie Holiday sang “There’s a change in the weather/There’s a change in the sea/So from now on there’ll be a change in me,” she was casting off an unsatisfactory love affair, not singing about climate change, but the words fit our current global concerns. The climate is changing and the sea is rising. No matter whether everyone agrees about the challenges ahead, there’ll be some changes made.
As I stand here today meeting Janus, the Roman god of endings, beginnings and transitions I am considering the personal changes I will choose to make, and the changes I may be forced to make. I am not the only one considering changes. Our nation is considering what changes will unfold in 2017 with heightened interest. In our own state and community we read about proposed changes and how they will meet the needs of state and community. Each of us will consider changes we can make individually to meet the needs of state and community.
Those of us who tend a garden know that change is inevitable. Often the garden changes slowly. Seeds germinate slowly and poke tiny shoots through the soil, buds unfurl slowly, vegetables and fruits ripen slowly. Patience is cultivated, although for some of us it is slowly gained.
I can catalog my own impatience over the past months.
The view of planting beds floating in the lawn April 2016
In 2015, before we actually moved into our new house, we concentrated on the edges of our garden, the South and North Borders, where we planted shrubs, including a few roses, perennials and groundcovers. We also created three small islands that floated in the sea of lawn that surrounded the house. We knew a garden is not built in a season, but we were impatient and tried to do as much as possible.
During the summer of 2016 we had a low and gracefully curving stone wall built in June and started enlarging those tiny islands, and planted more shrubs and perennials in July and August. It is said that you never step in the same river twice. It is also true that a garden is never the same from day to day either. Some changes may be very small, but sometimes there are big changes that are gratifying – or terrifying with storm debris scattered everywhere.
Beds expanded in July, 2016
You do not even need to have a garden of your own to see the way gardens change. I monitor the Bridge of Flowers email and I am always dismayed when questions come in about the best time to visit. All I can do is ask the writer what flowers are their favorites? Spring bulbs, peonies and blooming trees? Roses and dahlias? Chrysanthemums? I send them on to the Bridge’s website to the very long list of bloom times. The Bridge changes every year because Head Gardener Carol Delorenzo always has new ideas and some new plants to introduce.
Those who have discovered that Greenfield’s EnergyPark right in the center of town is a good place to stroll or sit in the shade will have noticed that changes are happening there. The stones edging circular beds have been transformed into meandering paths through newly planted beds. Other beds are being weeded and edited to include more native plants, and plants that support pollinators even if they are not natives. More changes are coming. Keep strolling and watching this spring. Well tended public gardens, however small, can change the way people feel about their communities.
Many things bring about change in our lives. As a gardener I love visiting other gardens that introduce me to new plants, new ways of using plants and different points of view. How often during a garden tour do you find yourself exclaiming, why didn’t I think of that? I love garden tours, official and ad hoc, because I am always ready for a new point of view, new information, and a new inspiration.
I am not very good at making New Year’s Resolutions, but I do begin every new year with some visions and some hopes, not all of which are about the garden. While I am not good at resolutions, I am pretty good at visualizing. This year I am visualizing good friends around our dinner table more often; visualizing a real cutting garden; visualizing an enchanting list of books to read to the first graders in Kate Bailey’s class at Four Corners School; visualizing a stack of books for myself with plenty of hours for reading; visualizing cool hours to work in my own garden, and in public gardens like the Energy Park and the Bridge of Flowers.
There have probably been hundreds of books written about how to respond to change, especially when it is unexpected. The results of our own national elections this fall were unexpected, and whether you think those changes are good or bad, the reality is that we are facing unknown changes.
Voltaire’s 1759 satiric work Candide follows a young man, his lady and his teacher Dr. Pangloss through many trials and adventures. Dr. Pangloss espoused a philosophy that declared all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds, and Candide accepted it. But in the end Candide is changed and no longer believes in this philosophy of acceptance. He determines to stay home and tend his own garden. I take that to mean doing what he can where he can.
Right now my garden is a blank slate covered with snow, but I too will cultivate my garden this year and make the necessary changes.
Between the Rows December 31, 2016