Subscribe via Email

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

Houseplants in Print and in Pots

House Plants

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

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

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

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

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

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


Poinsettias everywhere

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

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

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



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

Begonia propagation by leaf cuttings

Begonia propagation by leaf cuttings

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

Andy Cowles at Andrews Greenhouse

Andy Cowles at Andrews Greenhouse in Amherst with mother begonia

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

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

Between the Rows   December 2, 2017

Secret Gardeners, Naturalists, and Wild Seeds

The Secret Gardeners

The Secret Gardeners by Victoria Summerley

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

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

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

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

The Naturalist's Notebook

The Naturalist’s Notebook by Wheelwright and Heinrich

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

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

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

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

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

Planting the Wild Garden

Planting the Wild Garden by Kathryn O. Galbraith

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

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

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

Between the Rows  November 25, 2017


Thanksgiving Dinner – Granddaughter Hosts

The groaning board is ready for the feast

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

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

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

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

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

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

Granddaughter Lola’s handmaade napkin ring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanksgiving Day Action at the table

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

Between the Rows   November 18, 2017

World of Laura Ingalls Wilder

The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder

The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Marta McDowell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marta McDowell

Marta McDowell – Courtesy of Timber Press.

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

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

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

Between the Rows   November 11, 2017

Fall – Time to Get a Soil Test

Soil Testing

Tracy Allen, Supervisor of Soil Testing Lab at Umass

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

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

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

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

Soil Extracts ready for the spectrometer

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

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

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

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

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

Downloadable testing request forms are available at

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

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

UMass Garden Calendar

UMass Garden Calendar 2018

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

Flowers That Bloom in the Fall – Hooray!

Sheffield daisies

Sheffield daisies

If I asked a gardener to give me a list of flowers that bloom in the fall, she might sigh and run out of names after chrysanthemums and asters. But there are many plants that will bloom well into October.  Not only perennials bloom in the fall, but even a few annuals like my nasturtiums and marigolds.

We are all familiar with the potted chrysanthemums that are available in September and October at garden centers and supermarkets. These exclamations of brilliance in shades of gold and ruby are not really intended for the garden. These potted plants are grown by the thousands to be sold in full bloom and then set on porches or tucked between foliage plants in the garden for an instant application of brilliant color. They will certainly continue blooming well into October and maybe vie with jack ‘o lanterns for attention on Halloween

However chrysanthemum are natives of China where they have been bred into many species that can grow quietly in our gardens until midsummer and then begin a great show of color and form. Garden catalogs like Bluestone Perennials and King’s Mums will give you a large selection of the many mum cultivars. I have grown Alma Potschke in my garden for many years. She is a substantial lady, three feet tall or more and loaded with brilliant red/pink flowers into mid-October when she will be done in by a light frost.

I’ve also grown spoon and quilled mums like the golden Fine Feathers, and spider mums with graceful, thin florets that have a more delicate grace than the more familiar mums.

The very late blooming Sheffield daisy is a chrysanthemum and it’s one of my favorites. The Sheffies with their pink petals around a yellow center don’t start their rambunctious blooming until October but I think they are worth the wait. They will bloom until a hard frost. They are strong growers and I have been able to divide clumps just about every year and donate them to friends and plant sales.

Dahlias, natives of Mexico, are sometimes mistaken for chrysanthemums, but they are a bit more tender than mums. They grow from tubers, not root clumps, and cannot be planted until the soil is warm in the spring. As I write they are blooming in a magnificent array of colors on the Bridge of Flowers and in a friend’s Greenfield garden. Some dahlia varieties can be so tall and so laden with blossoms that they need to have sturdy staking provided at the time they are planted.

Asters are familiar fall bloomers. While I think of asters as being tall I am very happy to have the Wood’s Blue aster acting as a green ground cover until it turns into a river of blue in late August and blooms through September. This is a good spreader.



Boltonia is a false aster, but it is beautiful in fall. It begins blooming in late summer and continues until frost, producing clouds of small white aster-like blossoms with yellow centers. It blooms exuberantly on the Bridge of Flowers but also tolerates wet sites and can be included in a rain garden.

Toad lily tricyrtis

Toad lily – tricyrtis

Less familiar bloomers are tricyrtis, toad lilies, autumn crocus and colchicum. I always seem to forget about my planting of toad lilies tucked in near some low growing primroses. The clump of these late bloomers has become substantial, with three foot tall stems and deep green leaves. My toad lilies are spotted blue and white, but there is a pink and white variety as well. Sprays of about ten flowers are carried on the tall stems. This flower should be planted at the edge of a border where the complicated flower can be fully appreciated and admired.

Colchicums and autumn crocus look very similar and bloom at the same time, but colchicums belong to the lily family and autumn crocus to the iris family. Both should be planted in August. The first summer they are planted they will bloom in the fall when temperatures begin to cool. They will not have foliage but send up stemless blossoms of blue/purple or pink. Each bulb will send up several shoots and each will have a blossom. Because there is no stem these flowers are only about six or eight inches high. The following spring they will send up foliage which will die down and disappear sometime in August. Then, once again, the flowers suddenly erupt with springlike verve.

Cooks should be aware that the Saffron Crocus can grow in our area. Like the other autumn crocus they should be planted in August. They will bloom later in September and then the little stigmas can be harvested and dried for use in recipes calling for saffron. American Meadows, located in Shelburne, Vermont, sells Saffron Crocus. They say that a bag of 15 bulbs will produce 30 stigmas, or maybe more. However, they also say that these bulbs may only blossom a year or two. Even so, if it is the saffron you want the price of about $17 for a bag of 15 bulbs would be worthwhile. This is something to remember when you are making up your plant order in the spring.

While we will soon say farewell to this year’s blooms we can enjoy thinking about new blooms for a long season next year,

Between the Rows  October 28, 2017

Fall Clean Up and Cold Compost

cold compost

Cold compost ready for spreading as mulch

Leaves are falling, some flower stalks have turned brown and brittle; it’s time for the fall clean up.

I have been cutting back iris and daylily foliage which was looking less and less attractive every day. Cutting back is one way to make the garden look neater and a bit more serene. It is also a way to see clearly which clumps will be ready for dividing in the spring. Where can these divisions make the most impact? Or maybe the divisions can be sold at spring plant sales like those for the Bridge of Flowers or the Greenfield Garden Club.

I also started to cut back the large stand of six foot tall chelone, turtlehead. Cutting back the waning but still tall or spready perennials in the garden make it easier to see the plants with autumnal and winter interest like winterberry.

All of these large leaves and plant stalks go into a special big compost pile. In the spring we will turn the pile, and with a little luck the bottom half of that pile will be good compost to put on the garden beds.

Walking through the autumn garden shows the spots of failure. My sweet peas didn’t get enough sun. The stringbeans didn’t get proper support and were too crowded. The smaller honeysuckle wasn’t as small as I thought; it needs a real trellis. My wanderings show that the vigorous and twining Grandpa Ott morning glory is also going to need careful removal from the honeysuckle.

cold compost

time to load up the cold compost

Fall clean-up doesn’t happen in one day, and it doesn’t need to. Unlike chores in the spring which seem to happen all at once, I feel we have more time in the fall, especially this year because the weather has been so mild. The leaves fall and have to be raked. Then more leaves fall and they have to be raked. Fall clean up encourages a slow and steady approach.

Our biggest problem with clean up this year is the dead brown leaves of our big horse chestnut. We noticed other horse chestnut trees in town also shedding their big brown leaf clusters early. I have tried to do some research to confirm or disprove the rumor we heard that there is a fungus attacking these trees, and that the fallen leaves should be collected and removed, not put in the compost pile.

Our horse chestnut is very tall and branches are not within reach. I cannot see the leaves clearly until they fall off. I did find examples on line of leaf blotch which is caused by a fungus, but I am not able to see my leaves early enough in the fungus development stage to see if they develop as shown in the photos. In any event, we are trying to rake up as many of those leaves as possible, bagging them up and putting them out for the trash collector. The leaf blotch fungus, Guignardia aesculi, can overwinter in a compost pile and be a threat next year.

While we are doing our best to get rid of the horse chestnut leaves, we welcome the sycamore, Japanese lilac, and river birch leaves as well as the maple and oak leaves from our neighbors’ trees. There are plenty of these over the course of the fall. I collect them and put them into a five foot tall wire cage, pressing them down as the season progresses. We can watch the pile melt down and stand in awe of the speed of the rotting process.

I did not invent the idea of a big wire bin. That was the late Larry Lightner’s idea. He was a marvelous gardener and years ago was responsible for many of the gardens on the Northfield Mount Hermon campus. He collected leaves and made what he called ‘cold compost.’ The compost bins that many of us use for our kitchen scraps, grass cuttings and weeds, use the heat created by the rotting process to make compost. In a different process leaves break down in their aerated wire bin without heat. It does take a full year, and sometimes longer to be usable, but it is valuable compost.

Lightner even planted in his cold compost bins. He made them about two or three feet tall,  sometimes circular or of any other shape that suited him. He kept adding leaves all fall until the bins were full. In the spring he would top off the planting bin with cold compost from another bin. The newly full bin was ready for planting. He would make an indentation in the cold compost, add about a quart of soil, and then plant a vegetable or plant start. One big bin could hold numerous starts. These bins did need to be kept well watered, but plants got plenty of nutrition from the still rotting leaves and thrived.

We just pulled our wire bin up and off the rotted leaves we collected all last fall. Unrotted leaves remainrd along the outside edges, but  the rest of the leaves have rotted into good compost. I am spreading that compost over my beds as I cut back and weed.

cold compost

spreading cold compost

As soon as I spread all of that finished compost, we’ll set up the bin again and pile in this year’s crop of leaves. This is a wonderful cycle. It makes me happy to know that I can look forward to a compost harvest every fall.

Between the Rows  October 21, 2017

Ben Grosscup and Soil Restoration

Ben Grosscup

Ben Grosscup

Soil Restoration is important. I don’t always understand the science behind good garden practices, but an afternoon with Ben Grosscup helped me think about my soil in new ways. Grosscup began working with the Northeastern Organic Farming Association NOFA) right out of college. He was part of the efforts to organize putting bans on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and efforts to label foods if they did include GMO’s. He organized educational events and seminars for farmers and others interested in the quality of our food supply. Over the years he learned about carbon restoration of our soil.

I went to see Grosscup’s in-town half acre garden to get a better understanding of what carbon restoration means and the role of microbes in the soil. The first thing we did was look at the cover crops, radishes, vetch and winter rye, that Grosscup planted after his vegetable crops were harvested. “I plant a variety of cover crops in one space because each species of plant calls a different microbial community,” he said.

I had understood that cover crops like radishes, winter rye, peas, and oats had enough time in late summer to cover the soil over the winter protecting it from erosion while the roots went deep in the soil to bring up valuable nutrients. I also knew that winter rye would send up shoots that survived the winter and continueto grow in the spring while annual crops like peas and oats would die.

Radish, vetch winter wheat

Cover crops, radish, vetch and winter wheat

I did not understand how you could plant in a bed that was full of winter rye in the spring or any other cover crops. All was about to be revealed. First, there are two types of cover crops, perennial and annual. Winter rye is a perennial crop in that will survive the winter and continue to grow in the spring. When it is nearly time to plant new vegetable crops in the spring Grosscup pulls up the winter rye, covers the bed with newspapers and lays the harvested winter rye on top.  He supplies the newspaper barrier to prevent the rye from re-rooting.

He uses three techniques when planting the newspaper covered rows. First he waters the newspaper well, and the soil beneath. Then he can puncture little holes in the newspaper and insert his vegetable starts. Or he can plant his hills of cucumbers, squash, or beans by making the holes in the paper for the seeds. Or he can create a shallow long trough through the paper to plant seeds. As in any planting he needs to keep it well watered until the seeds or young plants are well established.

Annual ground covers like peas and oats will not survive the winter. Their roots will bring up nutrients and the dead plants will compost in place giving organic matter and nutrients back to the soil.

There are three goals: to cover the soil and protect it from erosion, to enrich the soil, and to avoid disturbing the soil which would release carbon into the atmosphere.

We all have to remember that soil is alive. It is full of fungi, bacteria, nematodes and many other invisible creatures. It has been estimated that a teaspoon of healthy soil contains more microbes than there are people on earth. Grosscup explained that these creatures need sugars created by photosynthesis.

Of course I needed to give myself a little review course about photosynthesis. Chlorophyll in green plants takes the energy from sunlight to break up the water (H2O) molecules in the plant. The plant breathes some of the oxygen back into the atmosphere. The saved molecules are bound to carbon dioxide molecules (CO2) to ultimately create simple carbohydrates like glucose (C6H1206). “These sugars are exudated into the soil through the plant’s roots” Grossup said.

“What the microbes give back to the soil is the ability to metabolize the crystalline formations (stones) that are a part of the soil and turn them into a biologically active substance like trace minerals that are important and usable by the plant.”

The tools of what we now call conventional agriculture include fertilizers which are attempting to give the soil the nutritional elements that plowing and tilling has removed. We gardeners see this when we buy a bag of fertilizer and notice the identifying NPK numbers 5-10-5 or 5-4-1 which refers to  the percentage of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in that fertilizer. What these fertilizers do not do is provide food for all the microbial life in the soil which is so vital.

Grosscup has a large sunny vegetable garden next to his house. He says he and his partner rarely have to buy vegetables, and they have three chickens to provide eggs, and compost. They also have fruit trees and berries, as well as a section they call a pollinator garden, filled with perennial flowers that attract bees and other pollinators.

Honeyberry surrounded by cover crop

Honeyberry surrounded by cover crop

The sloping area in back of the house is very much a project in progress.  Norway maples were taken down and removed. Some spaces have been covered with cardboard to kill all the weeds growing in the area. Other spaces are farther along in the process and have been planted with annual cover crops with the intent they be ready for planting in the spring. Other areas have been planted with honeyberries, gooseberries and goji berries and a few fruit trees. The ground around them has also been planted with annual cover crops to keep building the soil.

I always say the garden path leads to many fields. This week I explored a path that led into some fascinating science.

Between the Rows   October 14, 2017

Dreaming of trees

American sycamores

American sycamores on both side of the street

Since moving to Greenfield we seem unable to get through a day, or night, without thinking and dreaming about trees. When we bought our house, which was surrounded by nothing more than lawn, our attention was taken by the giant American sycamore on the tree belt in front of our house. I called an acquaintance, Dennis Ryan, who is a retired arborist and professor at the University of Massachusetts. I described our tree which we believed was a sycamore, but were not sure. He asked if it shed lots of bark as well as leaves. I gritted my teeth and said yes, it was always shedding bark. American sycamore it is, not a London plane tree which has a similar and handsome mottled bark.

The only other tree in front of our house is a lilac tree. This Japanese lilac tree is a true syringa. When it bloomed after we took possession of our house in  June 2015 we were thrilled with the large white panicled blossoms that were so fragrant they perfumed our who yard. It took a little research to discover its name, but I soon began to notice that a number of Japanese lilac trees are being planted in town. It doesn’t seem to be on many lists of recommended town trees but I think it should be. It grows to about 25 feet tall, with a similar spread and blooms through June in our region.

Japanese syringa

Japanese lilac tree in mid June

roadside maple trees

Roadside maple trees

We got those beauties with the house, but we wanted trees for the back garden as well. The first concern is to plant the right tree in the right spot. Our choice was river birch because it loves wet soil. River birch has exfoliating bark, a clumping habit, and will grow to 40-70 feet. It has grown well and is now about 20 feet tall. We liked it so much we planted another in the same bed.

Trees are an important part of our domestic landscapes, providing shade and interesting form and color to delight our eyes as it dances in the wind or changes color from delicate greens in the spring and brilliant color in the fall. While there is no denying the aesthetic delight of trees, there are the services that trees provide. They clean our air, provide oxygen, cool our cities, create barriers for unattractive views, muffle the sound of busy streets, and provide food for insects and birds that eat the insects, as well as a dozen other benefits.

Trees are important to the streetscapes of our town. Greenfield has tree wardens who can work with residents who want trees on their street. In addition, Greening Greenfield is a community organization designed to increase the sustainability of our town. One element of their goal is to increase the number of trees lining our streets.

Like all of us, trees have a lifetime. Once there were giant elms marching up and down Main Street providing beauty, shade and a sense of stability. Then Dutch elm disease hit Greenfield’s Main Street, and elms all over the country. There are ongoing efforts to replace the street trees in Greenfield. I’m sure we have all seen young trees planted by the town on the tree strip or on the front lawns of residences with their watering bags.

My neighbor Wendy Sibbison and I are interested in getting more trees on our street. When Sibbison was on the town council 20 years ago she was instrumental in getting a number of trees planted on our street, but some of them have died. Other trees on the street are simply old and failing. We met with the town tree wardens, Paul Ratskevitz and Mike Duclos, and they gave us a list of the trees that the town usually plants. They explained that residents can request a tree, or trees for their street and their name will be put on a waiting list. There is not a lot of money for street trees in the town budget so it is hard to say how long residents will have to wait. It is also possible for a resident to buy a street tree themselves and the town will plant it, and maintain it for a year with a water bag. In that case it is possible that the tree will be planted much more quickly.

Sibbison pointed out that the trees on our street are planted on residents’ lawns where the tree roots are less constricted and there is less stress from road salt. Paul Raskevitz said they prefer planting trees on lawns for that very reason. In fact Massachusetts General Law (M.G.L.) Chapter 87, Section 7, specifically allows towns and cities to plant trees within 20 feet of the public right of way. These trees are considered to be ‘public shade trees’. Aside from the benefit to the tree, planting on a lawn lessens the problems of hitting public utility lines under the tree strip, or the power lines above it.

Between the Rows   September 30, 2017

The Art of Farming – A fundamental human endeavor

Nancy Hanson

Jason Dragon, Nancy Hanson and Pete Solis (L-R)

Where do people learn the art of farming? Farmers used to raise farmers as well as crops of hay, wheat, potatoes or other vegetables. Children learned the art of farming at their father’s – or mother’s knee.

Then came a time when the farms got bigger and bigger, and more expensive, as did farming equipment, but the farmers became fewer and fewer. And yet we all need to eat. Where do our farmers come from now?

Recently I met with Nancy Hanson, Director of Farm Programs at Hampshire College at the barn where students and staff come to pick up their CSA order for the week. We were surrounded by bins of beets, pepper, carrots and other vegetables waiting for the week’s allotments to be collected. Hanson is a woman who grew up on a farm started by her grandfather, then passed on to her father. In the mid 1980s the federal government created a program to control milk prices by offering money to dairy farmers if they would sell their herds. Hanson’s father accepted the offer.


Carrots for CSA pickup at Hampshire college

Hanson hadn’t wanted to be a dairy farmer, but she did want to work with plants; After high school she took jobs working with ornamental plants. “After some years I learned what I didn’t know in those jobs and eventually was accepted into the University of Connecticut and earned a degree in ornamental horticulture,” she said.

She continued working with ornamentals in Boston and Maine. For a couple of years she was the estate horticulturist in Manchester by the Sea. “A couple bought an estate that was in disrepair. They renovated the buildings, pruned and replanted trees, and perennials.”

Hanson said that it was during those couple of years that she leaned to think about design and aesthetics in ways that were new to her. As part of her job she cared for a quarter acre vegetable garden. “That’s where I was the happiest, and that’s when vegetables became a passion.”

In the 90s Hanson learned more and more about organic growing. “This was interesting to me because it meant you had to understand the whole system,” she said. In 1999 she applied for a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) position at Hampshire College, and she has been there ever since. Hanson works with two other professional farmers. Pete Solis mostly works with livestock like sheep, pigs, beef and hens, while Jason Dragon is mainly in charge of the vegetable fields. All three work with each other, and with the students.

Flock of sheep

Sheep flock at Hampshire College

Hanson explained that they have six students working full time in the summer with crops that are chosen to be ready for fall harvest. Work study students work on the farm in fall and spring. Some of those students do see farming as their life’s work, but others have different levels of interest in raising food.

“The goal is not to train farmers,” Hanson said. “Students work within academic programs like the introduction to food systems. We want them all to appreciate the goodness of fresh vegetables. This is the 26th year of our CSA. About one third of the harvest goes directly to the cafeterias serving the nearly 1500 students, and college faculty and staff.”

Hampshire’s program is not designed like a major in other colleges. Hanson explained that HampshireCollege was founded in 1965 by the other four valley colleges, the University of Massachusetts, Smith College, Amhers tCollege and Mt Holyoke College. Through the 60’s the administrations of these colleges felt the waves of new theories that were worthy of exploration and practice – but didn’t fit into their own academic visions. Thus was 800 acres of farmland bought and Hampshire College opened in 1970.

Section of Pick Your Own CSA at Hampshire College

Section of Pick Your Own CSA at Hampshire College

To this day HampshireCollege remains an experimenting institution with students creating their own self directed programs that usually include study related to societal or community problems. There are no exams or grades given. For example, the CSA program was designed and put in place by two students who made it their senior capstone project.

Hanson said that they try to bring the farm into other study fields. Art students come to the farm and one teacher brings students to look at water systems. They give tours, and this year they made bouquets with their own flowers to sell to parents bringing in the new freshmen. The bouquets sparked everyone’s interest in the gardens.”

Hanson said it is the combination of farming and teaching that makes her happy.

“I’m still here because as a teacher there is always some smart alec who asks me a question I can’t answer – and keeps me learning about something I’ve been involved with since I could walk. Some students are familiar with farms, but to some the farm is a totally new thing. I want them to realize that farming is a fundamental human endeavor. It is great to watch a student get it, when things start clicking.”


Recently I talked to Ben Grosscup about a Pollinators and the Urban Homestead workshop where you can learn the key principles of gardening for pollinators on Ben’s urban homestead and emerging food forest. Sponsored by Western Mass Pollinator Networks, this free, in-depth workshop will be co-led by landscape designer Tom Sullivan (  Sunday, October 1, 9:30 a.m. to noon. 195 Chapman St., Greenfield.  PLEASE REGISTER by emailing your name to ###