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Delicious Culinary Herbs for Taste and Pleasure

Culinary herbs basil

A handful of basil – culinary herbs at Stockbridge Herb Farm

Culinary herbs bring flavor and savor to a meal, that bit of piquance that can turn a bland dish into something delectable. They all have their own stories as well. I enjoy thinking of women from time immemorial harvesting their herbs and preparing meals and medicinal potions for their families. Herb gardens have an ancient history and we moderns can still grow a handful of the herbs we use most often.

Simon and Garfunkel aside, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme are just the beginnings of the culinary herbs that can fill an herb garden. In my experience it is easy to find space for annual herbs in an herb garden or added to flower beds .

Every spring I buy a flat or two of Italian parsley, and a flat of curly parsley. Italian parsley with its flat leaves is considered the best culinary parsley, but I like growing curly parsley as well. Although I consider it an annual, I often find the curly parsley sending up new shoots early in the spring and it is usable almost until the Italian parsley can spare some shoots for the kitchen. Parsley is possibly the most basic used of the culinary herbs.

I do not plant parsley from seed because it takes so long to germinate. There is a saying that parsley has to go to Satan and back seven times before it will germinate. Buying a flat of plants is easier. Buying a collection of herb starts means I can have a pretty herb garden in just one afternoon.

I also buy annual basil, rosemary, tarragon and fennel, cilantro, and onion plant starts. The rosemary can sometimes make it through the winter indoors, but that really depends on the indoor climate of your house.

Aromatic fennel is both a vegetable and and an herb. The fennel ‘bulb’ can be braised for a delicious side dish, and the fronds can be used in salads, pesto and adding a piquant note to salmon en papillote. You can add that licorice-y flavor to any number of dishes. While scallions are not really an herb I plant a handful of spring onion starts as well. Many summer salads and dishes call for a few scallions and it is a treat to be able to go outside and pick them as needed.

Cilantro, with its lacy foliage resembles parsley and is in a class by itself. The cilantro foliage is useful in many ways, but it must be admitted it goes to seed quickly. It is best to make succession plantings to keep flavorful cilantro foliage coming throughout the season. Cilantro is a staple in many Mexican, and southeast Asian dishes. When cilantro goes to seed, it is called coriander so it is really two herbs in one.

dill is one of my favorite culinary herbs

Dill is one of my favorite culinary herbs

Other useful and common herbs are the perennials: dill, chives, lemon balm, and mints like spearmint, peppermint, chocolate mint, pineapple mint. Dill and chives are well behaved in my garden. I don’t make dill pickles and confess that I love the dill for its fragrance as much as its flavor. It’s a reminder of my childhood and the vegetable gardens of my grandmother and aunt in Vermont. Dill fronds, otherwise known as dill weed, add flavor to many dishes as do the seeds when they are set and ready to be harvested for winter use. Some of that dill seed always falls on the ground and plant another year’s crop. I have not found it to be invasive at all.

Chive clumps will increase in size every year so from time to time you can share a piece with a friend. The globular lavender flowers can be tossed into a salad for a bit of color and laughter when served.

Sage is almost like a tiny bush in the herb garden. I prefer the plain silvery sage. I harvest leaves during the season as necessary, and I always dry a few leaves to keep for the winter. There are fancier sages showing off golden foliage, or purple or tri-color, but these are not as hardy.

Finally there is thyme and I plant thyme in my lawn. The English have been known to have thyme lawns and I have found common thyme pretty in the lawn, and useful as an edging plant, just waiting to be harvested as needed. Like sage, thyme is available in shades of gold and green and a dull gray-green that covers the ground like a carpet.

A circle of thyme

This circle of thyme at Pickety Place has thyme to eat and thyme to admire

There is absolutely no reason that herbs cannot be planted among the ornamentals in your garden. However, I like having my herbs near the kitchen door. One benefit is that they are close at hand and I can nip out when I need a few leaves for recipe. There is also the advantage that since I walk by it several times a day I often stop to do a bit of weeding, keeping it neat, turning it into a welcoming doorway garden.

Still, I find that parsley makes a great edging plant, and any of the fancy sages would be a pretty note in the flower garden.

Herbs are not demanding plants. They have been grown since ancient times when they had medicinal as well as culinary uses.  They require sun and soil of average fertility. Like all new plantings they should be kept watered as they are becoming established, but beyond that they need very little care.

Herbs are also happy outdoors in containers, whether a collection of classic terra cotta pots, or more decorative pots. Herbs and other plants grown in containers do need to be watered regularly which in the summer heat means every day.

Between the Rows  March 10, 2018

New Ways to Make Compost and Vermicompost – Book Reviews

Composting for a new Generation

Composting for a New Generation by Michelle Balz

The first time I learned about compost piles was when a homesteading friend gave me a subscription to Rodale’s Organic Farming and Gardening magazine while we were still living in New York City. We had a tiny backyard in Manhattan, but we never did very much with it because of our fear of heavy metals in the soil. Adverse health effects caused by heavy metals are a real threat if you grow edibles.

We moved to Heath 37 years ago. On our 60 acres we had more than enough room and material to become serious composters. Composting For a New Generation: Latest Techniques for the Bin and Beyond by Michelle Balz (Cool Springs Press $22.99) gives a refresher course in the basic science of composting. Balz reviews then reviews old techniques and brings us fascinating new techniques.

This comprehensive new book tempts you with the benefits of composting from improving your soil, saving money on fertilizers, benefitting the environment and maybe even making you a happier person. Did you know that Mycobacterium vaccae, found in soil and compost piles acts as a natural antidepressant? These bacteria enter your body through your breathing and through your skin.

Balz has a degree in Environmental Studies and worked as a “solid waste (garbage) professional before devoting herself to all manner of composting which she explains in her book. If you raise chickens, brew beer, make coffee, have a clothes dryer or trees you have extra riches for your compost pile. Who knew spent grain left from beer brewing, or coffee grounds really got the action going in a compost pile?

You can make compost just by layering brown matter like leaves, straw, shredded paper and sawdust with a lesser amount of vegetable scraps, chicken manure, and things like plant trimmings in a casual pile. However, for making larger amounts of compost more easily, Balz gives clear instructions for building wooden compost bins, wire leaf bins, a compost tumbler and other items. I was really taken with the simple aerator which would help break down raw materials more quickly. Air is vital to good compost making.

Balz also suggests some unusual ways to compost. She gives directions for making bokashi, a pickling process, as well as compost tea, vermicomposting which is composting indoors with worms, and trench composting. I was fascinated with her explanation of an African Keyhole Garden which puts a compost pile in the center of a raised bed. Rains will wash the nutrients from the decomposing compost pile throughout the garden.

Balz also describes hugelkultur, a permaculture technique, which is about composting wood. We have our own hugelkultur project at the back of our garden, and I have written about that before.

Worms Eat My Garbage

Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Applehof and Joanne Olszweski

Balz focuses on some new ways of making compost, but this is the 35th anniversary of the classic book Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof and Joanne Olszewski. The subtitle is How to Set Up and Maintain a Worm Composting System and that system is alive and well at the Four Corners School where several classrooms have simple worm bins filled with damp newspaper and worms that are making good compost. In the spring the children will be planting seeds in potting soil amended with that vermicompost.

Think of all the questions children, or any of us might have about worms. Do they have a mouth, or teeth to eat all that lettuce? Do they have eyes? Do they have brains? All will be revealed in Worms Eat My Garbage.

Along the way the children, and other new vermicomposters, will learn all about worm anatomy, worm mating, cocoons, and baby worms.

Vermicompost is a term that encompasses not only the worm castings (worm manure) but also the rotting bedding and bits of kitchen scraps left as the worms munched their way through the day. The various steps in the making of vermicompost and the harvesting process are explained fully, along with estimations of the time it will take from set up to harvest.

The children use a simple small plastic bin in their classroom, but there are a variety of commercial bins that come in various sizes, accommodating different amounts of bedding and food scraps as well as different numbers of worms. I have known people to keep their worm bins in the kitchen or nearby, and many keep larger worm bins in the basement.

Vermicompost is powerful stuff, but each harvest will give you a limited amount so it is best to use it carefully. It is very useful when planting seeds or transplanting your spring starts. Prepare your little row and sprinkle the length of the row with the vermicompost, or put a small handful in each hole for transplants.

If you are a gardener who likes to create soil blocks for seed starting vermicomost is an ideal additive to the potting soil. Plant your seed in the vermicompost enriched seed block and when the seedling is of sufficient size put the whole block into its planting hole in the garden. It will already have gotten off to a good start.

Fully finished compost and vermicompost can also be used for top dressing in houseplants.  Choose your technique and begin!

Between the Rows   March 3, 2019

Sunrise Farms- Maple Syrup – A Sweet Life

Maple syrup

Marilyn Lively and nearly done maple syrup

Sunrise Farms welcome the sweet life when it’s time to boil up the maple syrup. These days we are more likely to see little hoses (called lines in the vernacular) snaking through the snowy woodlands than tin buckets hanging off the maple trees. Maple sugaring has changed over the years and I got to see the whole process at Sunrise Farms in Colrain.

The Lively family, mom and dad Marilyn and Rocky, with sons Erik and Jordan welcomed me to the steam filled room in the sugar house where the maple sap had nearly completed its transformation into sweet maple syrup. Rocky then ushered me to the top of the three level space. This room, at the same level as the woodshed, holds a day’s worth of wood chips that have been harvested in late fall. The chips are sent down a chute that slowly and regularly feeds the furnace that heats the steam condenser on the bottom level.

However, it was on the second level where the sap lines, aided by a vacuum pump bring sap into the sugar house. The pump keeps the sap moving, protecting it from heat and air that might allow bacteria to form.  The sap is first filtered through cloth bags and then is run through an ultraviolet light sterilizer to kill any bacteria.  At this point the filtered and sterilized sap is sent to the reverse osmosis tank where magically 75% of the water is removed from the sap. With so much of the water removed the final boiling goes very quickly. No longer do syrup makers have to spend hours into the night watching the sap as the water evaporates.

On the steamy ground floor the sap is boiling away. Rocky checked it and was a little surprised. “Usually the first run is a pale color, but this batch is more amber,” he said. That comment led us into a conversation about the new grading system.

Back in the 70s when I was first buying local syrup I was delighted to find that I could get Grade B maple syrup which I thought had much more flavor than Fancy or Grade A that was paler in color. The new grading system allows that every level of syrup is Grade A, but the new terms refer to color and flavor. Fancy is now named Golden and Delicate Taste. Then comes Amber and Rich Flavor. Third in line is Dark and Robust. This is my favorite which might even be slightly richer in taste than the Grade B I used to favor. The color is beautiful and the flavor is so satisfying.

The final maple syrup grade is Very Dark and Strong Flavor. This used to be Grade C which most of us never saw because it was sold commercially.

When I told Rocky that I thought that Grade C syrup was used for making candy, he said absolutely not. Candy needed the much lighter amber syrup. The amber grade made the candy set up properly, and the color was much more attractive than the very dark (formerly) Grade C. “On the other hand, the Strong Flavor grade works very well for baking. Just a little will give you great taste for maple cookies,” Erik added.

The Lively Family

The Lively family at Sunrise Farms in Colrain

I asked Marilyn if she ever drank the pure sap, which is mostly water and which some consider to have health benefits. “No, I don’t drink the plain sap, but sometimes I like to make coffee in my old percolator pot using sap instead of water. It gives the coffee a sweet flavor and I don’t have to use any sugar. It’s delicious.”

Sugaring isn’t a very long season in the agricultural year. After all the sugaring equipment has been given its final cleaning the Lively men are busy tending their beef cattle, hayfields, and the woodlot. They sell timber, lumber and firewood. They also do some construction work. Marilyn continues with her job in the Mohawk Trail Regional School office where she works – even in sugaring season.

You can buy Sunrise Farm maple syrup at Green Fields Coop and at farmer’s markets.

Sugaring season isn’t the only sign of spring. The Western Massachusetts Master Gardeners Association is holding its annual Spring Symposium on Saturday, March 17, 2018 at Frontier High School in South Deerfield. Henry Homeyer, the Gardening Guy and author of books like Gardening in the Northeast, will speak on Sculpting the Living Landscape.  There will also be a wide variety of workshops from vegetable gardening, shrubs, to an herbal spa workshop, good and bad insects, invasive plants, pollinator plants, and more. There will also be books from Timber Press and Storey for sale and items from local vendors.

Cost for the Spring Symposium is $35. Register early to get the workshop of your choice.  If you wish to order the $8 lunch from the River Valley Market you must sign up with your Symposium form.  Full information is on the website

The UMass Extension Service is offering several hands-on workshops beginning on March 3, 2018 Edible Landscaping with Fruits in Amherst $35.

March 11, 2018 – Tree Grafting in Belchertown $100, all day with tools and materials supplied

March 24, 2018 – Home Orchard Pruning in Great Barrington $45.

For full information about Extension programs check online for programs, time, locations, and cost.

Between the Rows  February 24, 2018


George Washington Carver – Peanut Man

George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver

The United States has been built by people of every class, color and nationality, people who had a burning desire to learn, to spread new information, and to make people’s lives better, no matter their class, color or nationality. Sometimes their stories surprise us, but then they inspire us to find ways that we might improve our communities, our country, and even the world.

George Washington Carver (1860s – January 5, 1943) was just such a man. He was born to slaves but by the time he was 36 he had earned a Bachelor and Master’s degrees. He had studied plants, agricultural practices, and worked with farmers to share the knowledge he acquired from his researches and practical experiences. He had more than book learning when Booker T. Washington, the first president of the Tuskegee Institute, asked Carver to head up the Agricultural Department in 1896. He taught there for 47years.

Carver taught agricultural practices from crop rotation systems, soil improvement, farm self-sufficiency and also continued his research into various crops. He recommended sweet potatoes for their nutritional value. He had new ideas about teaching, and transformed a wagon into a mobile classroom. He visited farmers in that wagon on their land to give them additional training and information. This project was funded by the white scientist and philanthropist Morris Ketchem Jesup. This makes me wonder whether Carver’s fame had extended to the New York financial and philanthropy world, or if he was a good fund-raiser.

sweet potatoes and peanuts

Peanuts and sweet potatoes were two of the crops George Washington Carver promoted

At the same time that Carver joined the Tuskegee staff the boll weevil was making its way from Mexico into the United States taking a terrible toll of the cotton crops. Carver had already been teaching farmers to diversify their crop plantings because cotton was depleting the soil. He suggested planting peanuts and soybeans because they would add nitrogen to the soil. It was his promotion of peanuts when the boll weevil was destroying the cotton industry that brought about the great increase of peanut farming.

His work with peanuts earned him fame and he became known as the ‘peanut man’ after a talk he gave to the Peanut Growers Association in 1920.

His fame went beyond agricultural organizations and beyond the educational world. President Theodore Roosevelt went to him for advice on agricultural issues and he advised Mahatma Gandhi on agricultural practice and nutrition. In 1916 he was made a made a member of the British Royal Society of Arts, a rare honor.

For the last two decades of his life he enjoyed great fame and toured giving talks on interracial cooperation as well as agriculture and peanuts. Henry Ford built a replica of the cabin where Carver was born at the Ford Museum, and dedicated and named a laboratory in Dearborn after him as well. The USDA named a portion of its Beltsville, Maryland campus the George Washington Carver Center.

Carver has been memorialized in many ways. In 1943, during World War II a Liberty Ship named the George Washinton Carver was launched by Lena Horne who was accompanied by Bill Bojangles Robinson, Dorothy Dandridge and welder Beatrice Turner, the first female African American worker at the Richmond Shipyards.

Oddly, that ship was almost immediately refitted as a hospital ship renamed the Dogwood and served by making trans-Atlantic trips and then moving to the Pacific, finishing at San Francisco in the fall of 1946. By that time she was no longer needed as a hospital ship and regained her name as the George Washington Carver until 1964.

Although Carver died 75 years ago I believe he would be happy to know that the peanuts he encouraged African American farmers to cultivate more than 100 years ago, are now being used to save starving children around the world, in Africa and more close-by in Haiti.

Inspired by Nutella, the delicious nut sandwich spread, a French pediatrician and nutritionist Andre Briend created a peanut paste mixed with skim milk powder, sugar, vegetable fat and vitamins in 1996. It does not need to be fed to children in hospitals, and can simply be distributed to families at home.

Tinfoil packets of this nutritious paste, named Plumpy’nut, do not need refrigeration. Nor does it need clean water to help the child eat it and it does not spoil after the packet is opened. It can take a starving child from the brink of death to sure survival in just six weeks.

UNICEF is the largest buyer of Plumpy’nut and in 2013 they fed two million children. UNICEF now gets its supply from 19 approved producers. UNICEF ( has a website and anyone can go online and order an amount of Plumpy’nut from 21 packets for $15 or 105 packets for $58.

As the world wide refugee crisis has grown over recent years, Plumpy’nut has become even more important as families have found themselves living in tents in refugee centers.

George Washington Carver could not have foretold the global crisis of starvation, but I am sure he would join us in celebrating the continuing life-giving benefits of the humble peanut.

In 2010 I wrote about Plumpy’nut here.

Between the Rows   February 17, 2018

Trees, Caterpillars and Butterflies in the Backyard

Red Admiral Butterfly

Red Admiral butterfly

I have trees, caterpillars and butterflies and other pollinators in my backyard. Trees provide us with many environmental services. The obvious benefit is cooling shade. When we visited friends in Sacremento we learned that the Sacremento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) was putting trees on residential properties to cool the houses and lower the cost of power. Other benefits are not so obvious. They filter our air, take in carbon and breathe out oxygen. They filter water to protect our streams and rivers and prevent erosion. These are essential services.

Trees also make our gardens beautiful in multiple ways, beginning with the shape and texture of foliage. They can provide colorful flowers in the spring. Think of the loveliness of redbuds, magnolias, serviceberry, dogwoods, as well as blooming fruit trees that will give us a harvest. We can see and enjoy that beauty. What we cannot see is the ways trees help keep all the nearly invisible creatures in the garden in balance.

spicebush butterfly caterpillar

Spicebush butterfly caterpillar photo by Bill Benner

Many of us don’t give too much thought to pollinators, especially since many of them are so tiny that we don’t even see them, but we do think about how nice it is to have beautiful birds and butterflies in our gardens. Many of us put out bird feeders to attract birds, and aside from suet with seed blocks, most feeders hold seeds. However, especially in the spring birds need bugs and caterpillars to feed their young.

While many birds do have a diet that depends on seeds almost all North American birds depend on insects to feed their babies because of their great need for protein. Insects provide that protein and other nutrients in good measure. I also just learned that if there is any chance bluebirds might nest in or near your garden a makeshift feeder for mealworms would be very attractive. Bluebirds eat many other insects and mealworms should not be used as the sole bluebird food, but a helping every morning would keep the baby bluebirds thriving.

In his book Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in our Gardens, Douglas Tallamy describes and explains how important insects are for birds. He also explains why using pesticides in the garden in order to keep flowers and foliage looking pristine is a bad idea.

Monarch caterpillar

Monarch caterpillar

Native trees like red maple, sugar maple, river birch, white oak, red oak and black oak, to name just a few, are all strong enough to let insects eat their fill without damaging the vitality of the tree. He says that oaks, willows and cherries combined are trees that support about 1400 insect species, including butterfly larvae, otherwise known as caterpillars. Butterfly caterpillars often have very specific plants they can feed on in order to live through their cycle of egg, larvae, pupa otherwise known as chrysalis, and finally adult butterfly. Most of us know that the endangered monarch butterfly depends on the different species of milkweed plants as hosts where they can lay their eggs, so the larvae will have the proper food when the eggs hatch.

When we lived in Heath we did have a pussy willow. One day when I was examining it to see how much damage a browsing moose had done I saw an odd brown bump on a stem and leaf. What was it? Some kind of disease growth on the willow or something else? A little research and I found that it was the larval form of the viceroy butterfly. The viceroy larvae masquerades as a pile of bird poop, which no bird would ever think looked appetizing.

Swallowtail butterfly

Swallowtail butterfly

Here is a very short list of common trees that act as host plants for particular butterflies:

Viceroy                                   Willow, aspen, cherry, plum, poplar

Mourning cloak                       Elm, poplar, willow

Red spotted purple                 Apple, aspen, hornbeam, poplar, willow, cherry

Giant swallowtail                    Hop tree

Question mark                         Hop tree, elm, hackberry

Spring azure                            Dogwoods

Baltimore checkerspot            White ash

Hairstreaks                              Oak

Elfins                                       Pines

Dr. Bob Benner, veterinarian extraordinaire, gave a talk to the Greenfield Garden Club at their annual meeting recently, about butterflies, their needs, and the delight they can bring to our gardens and to our eyes. His photos of some of the 105 Massachusetts butterfly species, including their caterpillar stage, were stunning, and surprising. He gave us advice about choosing plants to act as hosts and provide nectar. He also gave us permission to be a little casual about weeding because some ‘weeds’ act as host plants for caterpillars.

He also suggested that we might want to join the Massachusetts Butterfly Club which has numerous benefits including about 50 butterfly field trips a year, publications like the twice yearly journal Massachusetts Butterflies and the MBC Guide to Good Butterfly Sites which comes with maps.

Benner left us on tenterhooks as he told us about the election to choose a State Butterfly. The MBC partnered with Girl Scout Troop #85103 of Norfolk and proposed the Black Swallowtail, the Mourning Cloak or the Great Spangled Fritillary. Voting ended this past October and now we wait for the results. Benner suggested that we might be looking to the Black Swallowtail to win. Can’t wait for the announcement.

Between the Rows   February 10, 2018


Gardening in Small Spaces – Book Reviews

Container Gardening Complete

Container Gardening Complete by Jessica Walliser

Many of us  will decide that gardening in small spaces is something we must, and wish to do. A number of years ago I watched a television show about centenarians, and the likely reasons they were living such long and healthy lives. The interview with one man, a devoted gardener, particularly struck me. He lived in a house on a large piece of property that included a woodlot that he tended, and vegetable and ornamental gardens. As he grew older and his strength began to diminish and he decided he would have to give up working in his woodlot. As time went on, he became less mobile, he also gave up his vegetable gardens, and then his flower gardens. In response to these losses, he turned to window boxes where he would still get his hands in the soil and tend his flowers. He had found a way to keep doing the thing he loved.

He is not the only one who has ever had to scale down, but many don’t know how. Container Gardening Complete: creative projects for growing vegetables and flowers in small places by Jessica Walliser (Cool Springs Press $30) can provide a way.  For me the key words are complete and creative projects. Gardeners of any age will find lots of inspiration.

Walliser supplies information about the basics of gardening, soil (in this case potting soils) watering, fertilizing, managing pests and plant diseases. Anyone who has gardened before will be very familiar with this information, although it never hurts to go over the basics, or to be able to review cures for pest damage or disease.

Some of us are would-be-gardeners who have limited space but would like to take up gardening. Their question is how to begin. Besides providing every type of needed information Walliser also opens up the great world of containers. Containers come in all sizes from small ceramic bowls for succulents to large handsome containers of metal or resin, and magnificent containers for small flowering trees. We can also let our imaginations go wild as we consider what items we have around the house that can be repurposed and create a unique and possibly humorous container.

A major value of the book is the interspersed directions for how-to projects. We may be gardening in small spaces by there are ways of expanding those spaces. These range from simple trellises and many other supports, self-watering containers that are much less expensive than commercial containers, and vegetable growing bins. There is  also information about brand new types of containers like fabric Smart Pots, crop pockets that make use of pocketed closet organizers, and gutter gardens that call for roof gutters that can be attached to a sunny wall, filled with potting soil and small plants like herbs.

House Plants: The Complete Guide

House Plants: The Complete Guide by David Lisa Eldred Steinkopf

Houseplant Handbook: Basic Growing Techniques and a Directory of 300 Everyday Houseplants by Lisa Eldred Steinkopf (Companion House Books, $19.95) presents another way to enjoy green and blooming plants if you have no outdoor space. Many people who begin growing houseplants find that is an easy way to enter the gardening world.

This is an excellent book for the novice gardener beginning with instructions on how to examine a nursery plant carefully for disease or insect damage before buying it. This is followed by information about potting soil, watering, repotting and grooming plants, as well as how to handle chemical or non-chemical treatments for pests and disease.

A useful section explains propagating, beginning with seeds, a variety of ways to take cuttings from stem and cane cuttings, to every kind of leaf cutting. I surprised myself when I tried making begonia petiole leaf cuttings and ended up with half a dozen new healthy begonia plants. It seemed quite miraculous to me that a new plant would be created from a single leaf.

In fact, when I visited Andrews Greenhouse in December I admired and was fascinated by the flats of leaf triangle cuttings sending out new begonia shoots. A new plant from just a tiny section of the mother has been created. There are many mysterious examples in the garden – life will not be denied.

The major part of the book is given over to a catalog of more than  three hundred  plant varieties that provide all necessary information about size, light, and water needs, as well as how to handle them in the different seasons. Some common houseplants like pocketbook flower (Calceolaria) are not expected to last for more than one year, but others like Schefflera can last for a decade or more. Some are familiar, like philodendron, and others, like gunpowder plant with flowers that shoot out pollen are more unusual.

There is no denying that houseplants, many of which will clean the air, will make a house seem like a more lively home. Containers for houseplants can be standard terra cotta or plastic pots, or Container Gardening Complete might help you turn your container and its plant into a work of art.

Both the Container Gardening Complete and the Houseplant Handbook have clear and beautiful photographs that will give you new information, new ways of looking at plants, and new ways of displaying them. For new gardeners or small space gardeners, both these books are useful and enjoyable.

Between the Rows  January 27, 2018

Climate Change and Our Neighborhood Trees

Trees in the Chanticleer Garden

Trees in the Chanticleer Garden woodlands

Climate change is much in the news. There are questions about whether climate change, the warming of the atmosphere and oceans, is responsible for the recent violent weather. The number of particularly violent storms seems to be increasing. There was  Hurricane Katrina in 2005; a 2008 storm in Haiti that wiped out 70% of the island’s crops; Sandy in 2012 was the worst storm to ever hit New York City’ and hurricanes Maria and Harvey in Puerto Rico and the Houston area are storms causing billions and billions of dollars of damage, not to mention the human cost. Is global warming causing these storms?

While we all have to acknowledge that theories of global warning are multi-faceted and complicated, we also have to think about the different levels of responsibility and cooperation. We hear about the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement signed by many nations, but never ratified by the U.S. Congress. Fortunately, states and cities can make and pass their own laws and regulations about issues like the use of fossil fuels. Organizations like the Nature Conservancy have stated that the biggest natural climate solution is more trees.

Trees in Monk's Garden

New trees in Monk’s Garden at Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Then we come to what our cities and towns can do to moderate climate change. We are fortunate that Greenfield has a program to plant street trees. In fact I am among several other residents on Beech Street who are working with the Department of Public Works (DPW) to put more trees on Beech Street. The town has a certain number of trees it can plant every year. Residents can contact the Parks and Forestry division of the DPW and ask to have their name put on the tree request list. Timing of the planting will depend on how many requests are already on the list. The town will then plant the tree on the tree strip if it is of adequate size, or on the resident’s lawn. It will also keep the tree watered throughout the first year.

Lilac Tree and Sycamore on Beech St

Lilac tree and Sycamore on Beech Street

Greenfield also has a Tree Committee, a non-profit volunteer organization promoting an urban forest in town and educating residents of the importance and value of trees. Last fall I drove up and down Haywood Street admiring the new street trees that were recently planted. The Committee works in cooperation with the DPW. Under founder Carolyn Maclellan’s leadership Greenfield was designated as a Tree City in 2002 by the Arbor Day Foundation. It still carries that distinction. You can learn more about the Greenfield Tree Committee at their website It was on their website that I was introduced to the fascinating Citizen Forester Newsletter which provides some really good reading.

I am proud to say that I volunteer with a group of women renovating the Energy Park gardens at the end of Miles Street. I have not been part of any tree planting there, but I have worked at maintaining some of the existing trees like the hawthorns with their red fall berries and the line of sassafras trees that rise over a bed of blooming asters in the fall. The trees, shrubs and flowers in the Energy Park are mostly natives that attract birds as well as pollinators like bees and butterflies. It is possible that a few more trees will be added.

So after all this talk about climate change and the interest of various groups to plant more trees, we might ask what it is that trees do that might affect climate change and the environment.

We have all heard and read reports of the rising amount of carbon in our atmosphere. Trees absorb and store carbon, CO2, and then release oxygen. Trees can also absorb polluting gasses like nitrogen oxides and ozone. According to a New York Times story   “One acre of trees annually consumes the amount of carbon dioxide equivalent to that produced by driving an average car for 26,000 miles. That same acre also produces enough oxygen for 18 people to breathe for a year.”

Landscape architects and designers know the impact of the careful placement of trees on a domestic landscape. Trees can be planted where they will throw shade on a house and cool it, saving on air conditioner costs. Trees can also be planted as a windbreak thus keeping the house warmer in winter.

Trees shade and cool hard surfaces like driveways and parking lots. Most of us have wilted considerably as we walked across a sizzling parking lot on a hot summer day, radiating that heat into the atmosphere. There is a standard that says 50% of paving should be shaded. I don’t see a lot of parking lots that include trees, but I am happy to see more (small) parking lots that are shaded by solar panels.

Trees brake rainfall and keep hard rains from causing erosion on hills and slopes. They also help protect our rivers and streams because they filter the water that could otherwise carry pollutants.

There are many ways that trees affect the environment. They can also affect our interior environments by calming us with their beauty. Neighborhoods that have green and shady trees have been shown to have less violence. Businesses find that the more trees and landscaping around their stores, the greater foot traffic and profits. Studies have shown that hospital patients heal faster if they can look out at greenery.

I  give thanks to our town trees every day!

Between the Rows  January 27, 2018

Summer Tour of Chanticleer Garden Remembered

Shady seating at Chanticleer

Shady seating at Chanticleer

The Chanticleer gardens were created by the Rosengarten family beginning in the early 20th century; in 1993 it became a public garden and is considered one of the grand gardens of our country. On these frigid and snowy days I am happy to share my memories of a great garden on a blistering summer day last June.

The Master Gardeners of Western Massachusetts arranged a tour for those gardeners who are always looking for more knowledge and inspiration. Chanticleer provides all of that and more.

Potted plants on Chanticleer patio

Potted plants on Chanticleer patio

It seems to me that how a tour begins is a good indicator of how it will reveal itself. We arrived at the house and got off our bus. After making use of the handsome restrooms we walked on and around the terraces, struck by the beauty and variety of  potted plants, exotic and familiar, fountains, walking from sun into shade. That was our experience all afternoon, going from sunny gardens like the Tennis Court garden, filled with riotous color, perennials and shrubs, that gave no hint of its prior life as a tennis court, and into the shady woodlands.

Chanticleer wildflower hillside

Chanticleer wildflower hillside

Soon we were on a sinuous elevated walkway that took us down a steep hillside all abloom with plants like Queen Anne’s Lace, poppies, cone flowers and many more that turned the hill into a fairy tale meadow. That walkway was also a lesson in caring for the environment and the visitors. First the walkway is beautiful with sculptured railings that are works of art, a permeable surface that allows rain to drain off the walk immediately instead of sending a river of water down to the bottom of the hill. In addition a drinking fountain was placed at a viewing spot on the walkway. A drink was very welcome on that hot day. How long has it been since you have seen a public drinking fountain outdoors? The Chanticleer staff seems to have given careful thought to the needs of its visitors; there were more artistic drinking fountains in other garden areas.

Drinking water fountain

Water fountain

The names of some gardens like the Ruin Garden, the Pond Garden and the Gravel Garden are self explanatory, but they do not begin to explain the effect and mood. The Ruin Garden looks like the remnants of a (small) stone castle garlanded with vines, plants growing up and between paving and small trees adding to the shade of the stone walls. There is even a large stone “tank” possibly suggesting a water source for the castle, or possibly built just because water is such an important feature of any garden.

The Gravel Garden is just that, planted with miniature bulbs that bloom in the spring, with butterfly weed, lavender, cone flowers, daisies, poppies and all manner of perennials blooming in their own season. Stone steps lead down another hill from which there is a wonderful view of the Pond Garden and the Serpentine, a graceful path of arborvitae hedge leading to “an almost pagan semi-circle backed by upright gingko trees — a marriage of stone and wood, dedicated to Flora.”

Ruin garden

Ruin garden

On that hot day you can image how happy we were to wander in any or all of the named woodlands. The Asian Woods and Bell’s Woodland are very different in their plantings, but both are wild shady spaces with trickling streams. The Asian Woods features native plants from Korea, Japan and China, but the feel is very much of an American woodland. We learned that this is the one garden that concentrates on a particular type of plants.

Bell’s Woodland would feel very familiar to any of us and concentrated environmental sustainability. The plantings focused on native plants, and I was fascinated by the practical path which was made permeable by the use of shredded tires.

plant list home

“Mushroom” home for plant list

The design of the woodlands and gardens made it very easy for the visiting gardener who is already thinking of what ideas or plant suggestions they can take away with them to use in their own gardens. One of the thoughtful features of the gardens are the plant lists placed in protective containers like that of what seemed a large mushroom growing along a path, or some other artistically created container. For those of us who wish we had bought a list while we were visiting, the Chanticleer website provides all the plant lists for each garden.

The website also provides a bloom list so that if you are a person who loves bulbs you can check when your favorite bulbs are blooming.  Or any other favorite type of plant. The Bridge of Flowers also has a bloom list on its website, and I often wish that visitors from away would use it. I feel sad when I get an email in mid-October asking if the roses are still in bloom.


Chanticleer tourists on a hill

Chanticleer is a grand garden maintained by a skilled and creative staff. Most of us do not have grand gardens, or a staff, but summer garden tours can open our eyes to new approaches. We see details that we might borrow, even if we have to do some tweaking. Now that snow is falling and wind is blowing I am remembering and thinking about my own summer garden.

Between the Rows   January 13, 2018

Chanticleer is located in Wayne, Pennsylvania, 30 minutes from Philadelphia. It opens Wednesday, March 28, 2018 and closes November 4. Adult admission is $10.



Emily Dickinson – Poet and Gardener

Emily Dickinson's flowers at NYBG exhibit

Emily Dickinson’s flowers at NYBG exhibit

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) was born into a prominent Amherst family so everyone knew who she was. She attended the Amherst Academy and went on to the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (as it was called at the time) for a period before she went back home, to garden and write poetry. She was more known for her gardening than her poetry in those days; now she is more known for her poetry and her reclusiveness. In the spring of 2010 I experienced both at the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) exhibit titled Emily Dickinson’s Garden – The Poetry of Flowers.

This exhibit presented Emily Dickinson as gardener and botanist as well as a poet, and the ways her observations of nature and love of flowers fed her poetry. The original garden was no longer in existence at the time of this exhibit but research and a close reading of her poems were the basis for recreating the gardens around the Dickinson house.

The exhibit also included a conservatory, a reminder of the small conservatory Emily’s father Edward built adjoining the dining room. Here were small placards with poems as well as some of the exotic houseplants that would have been sheltered in the conservatory.

Dickinson felt the appeal of flowers as a young girl and by the time she was 14 she had completed an herbarium, a collection of over 400 pressed and dried flowers, complete with proper botanical names, bound into a book. This was not an unusual pastime for a girl during those times, but it indicates the start of her knowledgeable approach to gardening. A printed facsimile of that herbarium was published, and Harvard University, where the book now lives, has made it available to the public online at$1i.

Tulips at NYBG Emily Dickinson exhibit

Tulips at NYBG Emily Dickinson exhibit

The NYBG exhibit was set up in the great Enid Haupt Conservatory and presented a section of the house exterior surrounded by garden beds separated by paths. The effect is that of a charming New England garden in spring with tulips, narcissus, forget-me-nots, primroses and lily of the valley blooming beneath lilacs, dogwoods and magnolias. In fact many of the plants in her garden were ground covers which run so quickly over the ground choking out weeds. There were occasional signs with names of flowers and appropriate poems.

          There I have ‘shares’ in Primrose “Banks” –         

          Daffodil Dowries – spicey “stocks” –

          Dominions – broad as Dew

          Bags of  Doubloons – adventurous Bees

          Brought me – from firmamental seas –

          And Purple – from Peru.

Grandpa Ott morning glories at NYBG Emily Dickinson exhibit

People may sometimes think of Dickinson as a difficult poet but I think this is a delightful poem touching on the way primroses and daffodils increase every year, and even the part bees play in the garden.

Another poem, an ode to a dandelion, one of my favorite flowers, celebrates spring just as I do when I see the first dandelion.

          The Dandelion’s pallid Tube

          Astonishes the grass –

          And Winter instantly becomes

          An infinite Alas –

          The Tube uplifts a signal Bud

          And then a shouting Flower –

                                                                 The Proclamation of the Suns

                                                                That sepulture is o’er.

By chance a book about her gardens, with garden tips, Emily Dickinson’s Gardens: A celebration of a poet and gardener by Marta McDowell, was given to me years ago. McDowell’s book concentrates on the garden, and the flower poems that quite clearly tell of Dickinson’s planting chores from planting seeds to harvesting of “grape – and Maize.” This is an excellent book attaching the realities of the garden to Dickinson’s poems.

Of course, in addition to gaining some insight into Emily Dickinson and her poetry, such exhibits and books supply a different kind of inspiration to us individually – plans for our own gardens. Nowadays, we can visit the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst and stroll through the gardens that have been designed and planted using knowledge of the plants that were originally in the garden, or likely to have been in the garden. In this high tech world visitors can bring their smart phone to the garden and connect to an audio tour as they follow the paths.

Dickinson’s garden was not an exotic garden and most of us will likely have at least a few of her flowers in our own gardens: violets, daisies, peonies, morning glories, marigolds, zinnias, asters, taking us from spring to fall. At the Museum we can even buy packets of seed collected from the gardens in the fall.

Zinnias at NYBG Emily Dickinson Exhibit

zinnias at Emily Dickinson exhibit held at NYBG

When I look at my own roses, morning glories and autumnal chrysanthemums I can imagine Emily, and the generations of other women that have come before me, wandering their garden paths, sometimes with poetry on their minds, sometimes simple appreciation of the loveliness of the flowers – and sometimes just checking off items on their to-do lists.

I wrote more about the Emily Dickinson/NYBG exhibit here

Between the Rows   January 20, 2018

My Winter Garden in Color

Red winterberries and osier dogwood

Red winterberries, osier dogwood and arborvitae in my winter garden

My frigid winter garden is peaceful, blanketed with snow. Mysterious tracks speak of the creatures that wander across the landscape, leaving hints of their dancing in the bright moonlight, or shifting shadows of the breezy day. Tiny birds frolic near the Norway spruce, and seem to be feasting on the spruce seeds left for them on the snow.

My town winter garden is small, and very different from the fields of Heath, where the snow danced with the wind, jiving its way down the hill and into the woods of Heath.  However, no matter whether you have an urban plot or country fields, the winter garden needs no hand or back to tend it during the colder and colder days of the new year.

What the winter garden does need is thought in spring, summer and fall about which plants can add interest during the cold and snowy months. That interest can be created in numerous ways. Color comes to my mind first because it immediately makes itself felt. Because I wanted color in my winter garden as I chose shrubs for my low maintenance and wet garden I first chose dogwood shrubs. I bought the aptly named red twig dogwood with its bare crimson branches that stand out elegantly against the snow.

More and more people have become familiar with red twig dogwoods, Cornus alba, with cultivar names like “Prairie Fire”, and “Midnight Sun” as well as others with varying sizes and shades of red.

Cornus sanguinea cultivars like “Arctic Fire” are smaller than the C. alba. Not all of the Sanguinea family are solely red. “Midnight Fire” is quite golden turning red at the tips.

Cornus sericea is the family of osier dogwood shrubs. I have one that lacks a cultivar name, but it has both red and yellow-green branches. I have always called my third cornus a yellow twig. I believe it to be “Flaviramea”. When the sun is shining on it I find it even more stunning than the red twig . It is also extremely tolerant of my wet soil. The lower branches that touch the ground easily sucker, and I could have babies to share.

Gold winterberries

Gold winterberries

Berries are another way of adding color to the winter garden. Again, because my garden is wet I chose swamp loving winterberries.  One is the necessary male, two produce red berries, and one has surprising golden berries.

The former owners of my house planted two beautiful English hollies. One, the female, is quite large and filled with scarlet berries, while the other, the male, is somewhat smaller, and bears no berries. If I had neighbors that wanted to have a berried holly, they might not even need the male. Pollinators can easily travel around a whole neighborhood.

English holly

English Holly

A berried tree I have come to admire in Greenfield is the hawthorn that produces lots of red berries. The berries certainly provide winter interest, and feed the birds.

In addition to berries some trees have the advantage of unusual bark. I have planted two river birches which have a peeling sort of bark with cinnamon tones. This is a tree that loves the wet, and the bark is just as beautiful as that of the white birch.

River birch bark

River birch bark

When I visited the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum’s wooded Monk’s Garden I was fascinated by the paperbark maple, Acer grisem, which has bark in shades of brown and reddish brown that peels away to reveal the new cinnamon-y bark.

A friend gave me a beautiful book for Christmas, The Winter Garden: Reinventing the Season by Cedric Pollett (Francis Lincoln publisher) that shows the drama of these plants in the garden, especially when planted in masses, which is to say in groups of two or three.

Pollet took beautiful photographs of many winter gardens, most of which are planted on a scale larger than many of us will enjoy. These are English winter gardens where the weather is much milder than ours in New England. Even though we share many plants the blooming period might be different because of that milder weather.

One of the especially helpful aspects of the book is the section given over to photographs, descriptions, and needs of many dramatic winter garden plants. One of the  trees that captured my attention was the maple Acer conspicuum.  It certainly would be conspicuous in a garden because during the spring and summer the bark is a shade of orange, turns pink in the fall, and scarlet in mid-winter. However, Pollet says it is hardy to -11 degrees, and right now that is feeling a little iffy in this year’s glacial winter.

I have not mentioned conifers because I do not have much experience with them. We did plant a couple of Green Emerald arborvitae next to the majestic Norway spruce at the back of our yard and they are doing quite well, in spite of the fact that the soil there is wetter than conifers appreciate. These are popular privacy or hedge evergreens, and that is their function in my garden.

Evergreens certainly make a statement in the winter garden, and they are not always green. In fact, conifers are so disparate in color, texture and form that they need a whole column of their own, but some other day.

For now I close, with wishes for happy gardens of every sort in 2018.

Between the Rows   January 6, 2018