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Dear Friend and Gardener

Earliest Blooming Spring Bulbs

Crocus on the Bridge of Flowers mid April

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

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.

Snowdrops

Snowdrops

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

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 and Garden Revolution

Permaculture Promise

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 Weaner and Christopher

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

Spices from the Global Gardens

Spice collection

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

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

Charles Dudley Warner’s Summer in a Garden

My Summer in a Garden by Charles Dudley Warner

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

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

There’ll Be Some Changes Made

Janus  God of Endings and Beginnings

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

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

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

Water – Here and There

12-17-drew-anthony-friendWe just returned from a trip to Texas where our daughter Kate Lawn lives outside Houston with her family. Her family now includes three Eagle Scouts, dad and the two boys. Two years ago we visited and attended Anthony’s Honor Court; last Sunday we attended Drew’s Honor Court. We were so glad to celebrate their achievements.

One of the elements of the ceremony was a slide show of Drew’s scouting years beginning as a Tiger Cub. We saw Drew at campouts, hikes, rafting and even scuba diving. It struck me how often water was involved. Drinking water had to be arranged for campouts, streams were crossed on hikes, and for those water sports the boys had to be in the water. They had to learn how to swim of course, and they needed to know the importance of safe drinking water, and water safety when in the water. It was wonderful to watch this record of his growing up, of his participation in Scout projects, and in Scout projects in the community.

I was especially happy to see that his required Eagle project was planning, organizing and building a tiny free library for children that now lives in the Town Hall where parents and children can find a book to entertain themselves while business is attended to. They can even take the book home because the sight of the tiny free library has generated donations from others.

As part of our celebratory visit we took a family trip to Houston and the historic Cistern in the 160 acre Buffalo Bayou Park, an area that is once again becoming an active waterfront with hiking and bike trails, a dog park, native plantings, the resurrection of a Lost Lake and pontoon boat tours that travel into the downtown area on the bayou. Part of the renovations include flood abatement measures. Un-Houston-like temperatures were in the 40s and windy so we didn’t explore the whole park, but we did attend the video art installation called Rain: Magdalena Fernandez in the Houston Cistern.

Rain: Magdalena Fernandez at the Houston Cistern

Rain: Magdalena Fernandez at the Houston Cistern   Photo by Drew Lawn

The Cistern was one of the city’s underground reservoirs and was built in 1926 for fire suppression and for drinking water. This 87,500 square foot concrete space has 221 elegant concrete columns that are 25 feet tall. At full capacity it holds 15 million gallons of water. It operated for decades but an irreparable leak forced the city to close it in 2007. It still has a low level of water in it. Fortunately for us the Buffalo Bayou Partnership saved it and has turned it into a venue for art installations.

RAIN created by Magdalena Fernandez uses the Perpetuum Jazzile vocal group, using only body percussion to create the sound of rain, soft and torrential, using their snapping fingers and slapping hands while lights flash and move among the columns. We entered the Cistern with a guide who prepared us for the deep dark and the occasional loud booms that reverberated in my chest interrupting the splashing sound of rain from time to time. It was a mysterious experience.

Rain: Magdalena Fernandez at the Houston Cistern

Rain: Magdalena Fernandez at the Houston Cistern       Photo by Drew Lawn

After our summer drought the sound of that rain was just wonderful. Water seemed to be a theme of our travels. We flew over the eastern seaboard to change planes in Baltimore. We recognized Manhattan surrounded by water and tried to name all the local rivers, and pick out where friends live on the shore of Long Island. When we got to the coastal area around Maryland we saw many little islands, and were frustrated at not knowing anything about them

When we flew home we went through Orlando which has no coastline, but it does have many bodies of waters, lakes and ponds, and what appear to be large man-made lagoons with regular shapes. The cliché is “water water everywhere and not a drop to drink” and I couldn’t help wondering how much of the water below us was drinkable. The December issue of Smithsonian magazine in my lap told the story of how the drinking water in Flint, Michigan was revealed as having poisonous levels of lead and how difficult it had been to get the problem recognized and how expensive it will be to correct it. The story about Flint ended with the information that in 2016 the Natural Resources Defense Council identified 5300 water systems in the U.S. that do not comply with federal lead standards.

We are fortunate that here in Massachusetts we have close oversight of our water systems. I am proud to say that my daughter, Doctor Betsy as she is known in the family, is responsible for tracking the water quality of the Quabbin Reservoir, and the underground Norumbega Storage Facility which is located northeast of Worcester which supply water for the 61 communities served by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.

Here in Greenfield we can be grateful that the Water Distribution and Water Facilities Divisions of the DPW monitor our water, and the infrastructure of the water system. They make all the information about the water and system online  where it is easy to see that we are in compliance with all regulations. The website also includes contact information if we need a (free) water analysis or have questions.

As I prepare the holiday feasts I am grateful for the gift of clean water. In this holy season I send you all my wishes for a healthy and joyous year.

Between the Rows  December 24, 2016

Books for Fun, Knowledge and Beauty

Garden Flora by Kingsbury

Garden Flora by Noel Kingsbury

Not all garden books are how-to-garden books. Some books for fun are filled with weird and wonderful facts, and others are full of beauty and history.

One book sent to me by Storey Publishing last month is Cattail Moonshine & Milkweed Medicine: The Curious Stories of 43 Amazing North American Native Plants ($19.95) written by Tammi Hartung.

Because milkweed was in the title I began by reading those pages. When we lived in New York City I was doing some research for an article on herbs. I went to the big library on 42nd Street and trolled through the enormous card catalog (no online catalog in 1976) and found amazing books. One book (name lost) told the patriotic story of children during WWII  who were paid 15 cents for every onion bag full of unopened milkweed pods. Hartung fills out that story saying that during the war the government lost its access to Java and its kapok which filled life jackets. I don’t know who first suggested milkweed fluff as a substitute, but “the seed floss is hollow and coated with a natural plant wax which makes it waterproof and allows it to float.” The Navy made over a million life jackets with milkweed floss during the war.

That’s not the first time milkweed was found to have important uses. Several Native tribes have used it medicinally, for removing warts, as an eyewash to heal snow blindness and to treat pleurisy and other ailments. In fact, up until 1936 it was included in the National Formulary as a drug to treat pleurisy.

Nowadays new uses are being found for milkweed. The floss is being used to absorb oil spills more effectively than polypropylene. It can also be used in insulted jackets, pillows and comforters. The seeds and seed pods can be used as biofuel in woodstoves.

The pages on milkweed are just one example of the weird and wonderful facts about the other 42 native plants. Who knew that amaranth was nutritious enough, providing protein, folic acid, calcium and other necessary nutrients that NASA says it is an essential food for space missions.

Of course, hickory trees produce hickory nuts, and wood that is turned into lumber. Wagon wheels of covered wagons were made of hickory for the trek across our country, and Michael Thonet used green hickory wood to make his iconic bentwood furniture. Its bark can be used to make a smoky sweet syrup.

Lovely drawings and clear photographs illustrate this book that would be a treat for the whole family. Each topic from Agave to Yucca could send a student off in a dozen directions for a homework paper; parents will be fascinated by the ethnobotanical information involving so many familiar plants. Hartung writes in a clear and conversational way; she has also written Homegrown Herbs and The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener.

The gorgeous photographs and paintings of Noel Kingsbury’s Garden Flora: The Natural and Cultural History of the Plants in Your Garden ( Timber Press $40) is an alphabetic stroll through a garden from Abutilon to Zinnia.

The first 20 pages of the book are a substantial lesson in botany from taxonomy, evolutionary history, ecology, and history in cultivation. Then it is on to the bright seductive illustrations of flowers from old catalogs and garden magazines, as well as serene Japanese drawings and paintings. The brief histories of each flower are both scholarly and engaging.

The familiar maple (acer) is illustrated by an autumnal print made by the Japanese master Utagawa Hiroshige, with a brief history of its uses from maple syrup to attracting tourists. The diversity of maples has spread them around the world from North America, Russia, Japan and China. A theory based on Jurassic era fossils suggests that the maple first originated in Southern China.

Chrysanthemums are such popular flowers now, with numerous cultivars and flower forms that it might not be so surprising that records of Chinese cultivation go back to the Shan dynasty almost 4,000 years ago. I once attended a Kiku (the Japanese word for chrysanthemum) display at the New York Botanical Garden. The flowers were displayed as solitary potted plants, but the pots set out in symmetrical arrangements, as well as in cascades, and as Ozukuri where a single plant has been pruned and trained to produce “one thousand blooms” in a pyramidal form. Kingsbury’s book gives a good idea of that practice.

Garden Flora is a perfect example of the way a garden path leads into mythology, history, science and art. One of the things I like about gardening and the gardeners I meet is that there is so much to learn, to enjoy, to marvel at, and to appreciate.

It is always good fun to have a story about plant hunters like Ernest Henry Wilson, known as Chinese Wilson, who gave us certain hydrangeas, honeysuckle and the Lilium regale.

Kingsbury who lives in Britain on the Wales border has written many other books including Natural Garden Style. He also lectures and has a website, noelkingsbury.com  and a blog.

When winter means we can’t wander in our own garden, the pages of Garden Flora are a happy substitute.

Gifts of Information and Beauty

The American Gardener Magazine

The American Gardener magazine by the American Horticultural Society

Gardening is about more than tools and plants. It is about knowledge and information – because the tools and plants alone won’t take us very far. I am a reader, so I depend on garden magazines to keep me up to date. Gifts of information include membership in a society or subscription to a magazine is an easy gift to arrange and a beautiful and useful gift to receive.

One magazine, The American Gardener, comes to me through the American Horticultural Society. I’ve been a devoted member of the AHS for many years and I welcome each bi-monthly magazine which comes with news of individual plant cultivars, organic techniques, gardener profiles, book reviews and news of AHS activities that might give us inspiration for community gardening projects in our own area. For myself, I am now part of a group working on improving the plantings at The Energy Park at the end of Miles Street. Gardens are not only for our own pleasures, but also for the pleasure of our communities – and the environmental health of our communities. I should mention membership ($35 for one)  in the AHS brings many other benefits like reduced entry to over 300 public gardens and arboreta in the U.S.

Garden Design Magazine

Garden Design Magazine

While The American Gardener is full of practical advice, Garden Design magazine has a more glamorous look at gardens and plants and garden styles. Garden Design has plenty of hard information, too, but the look is more luxurious. It does not have any advertising and publishes seasonally, four times a year. It has been described as a ‘bookazine’ and it’s exciting to see it arrive in the mailbox. This book is a happy change from its former incarnation that focused heavily on furnishings and décor.  You can order it online at subscribe.gardendesign.com. Cost is $45 a year, but the first issue is free – giving you five issues.

Horticultural and plant societies are other ways to gain information about plants and gardeners. In addition to the American Horticultural Society, I belong to the New England Wildflower Society which maintains the Garden in the Woods in Framingham and operates Nasami Farm in Whately, where I spent a fair amount of time this past summer buying native plants for my new garden. The NE Wildflower Society is the oldest conservation society in the nation and offers many classes and workshops for adults and children, with discounted fees for members. Their Go Botany website is free to all, helping us to identify the plants that we might see and be curious about. Membership is $40 for one individual and $55 for one individual with access to The Garden in the Woods.

Does the gardener in your life have a particular passion for one family of plants? There are specific societies from African violets to conifers, herbs, irises and more. The AHS has a page listing many of these societies with contact information. I was a member of the New England Rose Society and found their website and printed materials very useful, but the meeting I attended disappointed me because all the gardeners there were competitive men using lots of chemicals. I admit it was only one meeting, but a sufficient disappointment that I never attended another. Annual membership fees in most societies range from $25-$50. Memberships can be bought online, and they can be marked as a gift.

UMass Garden Calendar

UMass Garden Calendar

One informational gift I get every year and treasure is the calendar from the University of Massachusetts. It is a service of the Extension Service which also provides soil testing, tick testing, and diagnosing plant problems to home gardeners. The calendar includes a stunning photograph for every month, and information and seasonal tips for every day of the year. Before you even get to the dates section of the calendar this year’s edition gives suggestions for gardening in a dry season, with lists of drought tolerant perennials and annuals. You can order the calendar online for $12 plus $3.50 for shipping, or send your order and check made out to UMass to UMass Garden Calendar, c/o Andrew Associates, 6 Pearson Way, Enfield, CT06082.

Silk scarves at Paint & Dye in Shelburne Falls

Silk scarves and linen table runners at Paint & Dye in Shelburne Falls

Good information is important, but beauty is essential. Marjie Moser of Paint & Dye in Shelburne Falls has created beautiful ways to be with plants in the off season. She takes various kinds of silk and prints them with leaves and flowers. She has some kind of magic wrapping technique that transforms the (deadheaded) flowers from the Bridge of Flowers into phantasmical images. Her silk scarves range in price from $36-$68. She also dyes and prints linen table runners ($48-$68) with her leafy prints, as well as totes, tea towels and t-shirts, ranging in price from $10-$32. Of course the Paint & Dye offers many other treasures like printed pillows, beeswax candles and her own handmade scented soaps.  Moser is a quilter and I bought a small elegant quilted case that closes with a unique Japanese button for a granddaughter who is never without her smart phone. For more information about Moser logon to her website marjoriemoser.com.

Internet shopping has become popular, but I enjoy visiting local stores and small shops where I can find beautiful items made locally – from saws at OESCO to tea towels at Paint & Dye.  The gifts are unique and our local economy benefits. Happy shopping to all!

December 10, 2016

 

Useful Gifts for the Gardener

 

Full range of Felco pruners at Oesco in Conway

Full range of Felco pruners at OESCO in Conway

For me most holiday gifts for the gardener fall into two main categories, functional and informational.

Functional gifts include the necessary tools a gardener needs. We all start out with fairly inexpensive tools, partly because as a beginning gardener we don’t really know how hard a tool will have to work. As we grow as a gardener we come to recognize sturdiness and good quality and buy, or are given, better tools.

Trowels at Greenfield Farmers Coop

Trowels at Greenfield Farmers Coop

I was wandering through the Greenfield Farmers Cooperative on High Street a few days ago, looking at their large range of tools with long handles like spades and rakes. On the hand tool aisle there was an assortment of trowels. The new stainless steel trowels are one of the bargains on offer from Corona and Mint Craft at only $6. You can choose the size depending on your own need and the feel of the trowel in your hand. Some have inch markings in the steel to help you plant at the proper depths.

Also on the Coop’s rack were pruners and clippers of various sizes. The Corona by pass pruner is $30 and the smaller needle nose thinning shears is $24. The Dramm needle nose compact pruner is $15. Each pruner package lists the size of the wood that can be safely and effectively cut,

In addition to tools, the Coop has a large collection of equipment. I love my Gilmour hose and nozzle. I found various lengths of high quality Gilmour hoses from 25 to 100 feet (in blue which means they won’t get lost in the garden) ranging in price from $15 to $30.  High quality hoses with good nozzles are basic necessities and we can save money by buying quality that will last for years and years, rather than replacing worn out items every year or two.

Near the hoses and nozzles was a collection of Dramm watering wands. I acquired my Dramm rain wand after seeing it in action at a garden bloggers event. Through some kind of magic and 400 holes the rain wand allows a fast and high flow that will not beat down plants. The Coop’s Dramm Sunrise wand with its one touch control is 16 inches long and comes in beautiful shades of metallic red, blue, orange and green for $18. All Dramm products are manufactured in the U.S.

Hyacinth vase and bulb at Shelburne Farm and Garden

Hyacinth vase and bulb at Shelburne Farm and Garden

While checking out holiday gifts at the Shelburne Farm and Garden I ended up buying myself an early gift, a small iron plant stand ($40) with a mosaic top which is now holding my begonia plant in front of a window sill. If you wanted a plant stand you could furnish it with amaryllis bulbs in shades of red and white for $9, or a giant amaryllis for $25. Or you could choose a hyacinth vase, with hyacinth bulb for $8. The fragrance of blooming hyacinth in mid-winter is a happy reminder that spring will come again.

We ladies like to look our best even when covered with mud and grass stains, so striking foot ware like Sloggers at $33 are almost irresistible. I loved the Sloggers strewn with brilliant red poppies. When we wash off the mud we enjoy reviving with emollients like the Naked Bee Hand Repair, Facial Moisturizer, Body Lotion and Foot Balm made from organic plant oils. The prices range from $15-$4.

I am becoming notorious for leaving my pruners out in the garden and spending a lot of time searching for them. I drove off to OESCO in Conway to see if I could find a holster to wear on my belt. They not only had a collection of three Felco leather holsters, $10-13 they also had a sturdy bright red cloth holster for $4.

OESCO began as the Orchard Equipment and Supply Company, so it is no surprise that their products include many tools like pruners and saws for use in orchards. I was shown one item that is newly back on their sales rack, the Wheeler saw. This small, fine toothed saw was invented by Mr. Wheeler more than 40 years ago. He had an orchard but found using the kind of pruning saw that was available at the time, with its slippery handle and large teeth was uncomfortable and often not effective in the neat pruning cuts he wanted.

Wheeler saw at OESCO in Conway

wheeler Saw at OESCO in Conway

So it was that he designed a small push cut saw on the order of a bow saw, with fine teeth that was easier to handle. Indeed the instructions that come with the saw when sold at OESCO name the advantage of being able to wear warm gloves during winter pruning season, being able to slip the saw over the arm when shifting around and makes clean cuts. The saw blade is so fine that it is not worth while to sharpen, but the blade cane easily be changed without tools while working in the orchard.

OESCO bought the rights to the Wheeler saw and began manufacturing it in Conway. A number of years ago the metal bow part of the saw became unavailable locally and so production stopped. However, a new local source of this metal part is now available and the Wheeler saw is again being produced.

Next week I will talk about informational gifts, but there is actually another what-you-will category comprised of gift certificates. We all have loving relatives, or friends, who want to please us, but who, not being gardeners themselves, have no clue about plants or good quality tools. In their wisdom and love they give gift certificates which will give the gardener great pleasure. There is the pleasure of anticipating a longed for necessity or perhaps something that is more indulgent.

December 3, 2016

Late Bloomer by Jan Coppola Bills

Late Bloomer by Jan Bills

Late Bloomer by Jan Coppola Bills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

South Border lasagna bed June 2015

South Border lasagna bed June 2015

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

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

South border lasagna bed June 2016

South Border lasagna bed June 2016 – new shrubs thriving

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

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

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

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

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

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

Between the  Rows   November 26, 2016