Dear Friend and Gardener

Groundhog Day, Candlemas or Cross Quarter Day

February 2, 2016

February 2, 2016

February 2 is best known in the U.S. as Groundhog Day, the day Punxatawny Phil comes out of his burrow to see if he has a shadow and let us know if spring will be early. No shadow today! An early spring!  Of course, here in western Massachusetts we haven’t had much of a winter.  I have been worring that  winter will arrive in April but I will trust in Punxatawny Phil.

Candlemas is also a Christian holiday celebrating the presentation of the baby Jesus at the Temple 40 days after his birth, as decreed by Mosaic law. There he was recognized as the Messiah by Simeon and Anna. Traditionally the day has come to be the day that church candles for the year were blessed.

February 2 is also a cross quarter day. We are all familiar with the spring and  fall equinoxes when day and night are of equal length, about March 21, and September 21. We also know of the summer and winter solstices about June 21 and December 21, when we have the longest and shortest days. However at one time there was a system that named June 21 as Midsummer, which would mean summer arriving in May. We have a new system now.  Cross quarter days are evenly spaced between the fundamental Quarter Days of the Solstices and Equinoxes. The Cross-Quarter Days thus mark the middle of each season under our current system, or seasonal boundries under the old system.  If you read English novels as I do, you may occasionally run into mention of quarter days when characters’ annuities or other monies are paid, or when tenants on farms must pay their rents. You can learn a lot by reading English novels!

Here, at 10 am, with temperatures at 40 degrees and brilliant sun shining I am celebrating the day. I hope you all find a reason for celebrating this day.

 

Christmas Trees – Large and Small

Norway spruce

Norway spruce

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

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

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

Norway Spruce cones

Norway spruce cones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas Tree

Our Christmas Tree

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

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

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

Between the Rows   December 26, 2015

Celebrating Eight Years of Blogging – Giveaway

Terrariums: Gardens Under Glass by Maria Colletti

Terrariums: Gardens Under Glass by Maria Colletti

This year Cool Springs Press is helping me celebrate my eight years of blogging with a Giveaway of Terrariums: Gardens Under Glass.

These have been rich years for me be cause my blog has brought so many wonderful gardeners into my life, and so many beautiful gardening experiences. With other garden bloggers I travelled to Buffalo and to Seattle and saw beautiful gardens, large and small and all different. This past summer I attended a Garden Writers Conference in Pasadena and visited amazing public gardens, the Los Angeles County Arboretum and the Huntington Library, Art Collection and Botanical Garden. Amazing gardens.

Now that winter is setting in amazing gardens have to be found in places other than the outdoors. In her book of Terrariums Maria Colletti gives all the basics about ingredients, supplies, and tools, and familiar flower arranging techniques. Whether you would like to create a desert arrangement, a tropical arrangement, or a more familiar scene you will find all the inspiration and information you need. This beautifully and usefully illustrated book if full of inspiration as well as instruction

Roses at the End of the Road by Pat Leuchtman

Roses at the End of the Road by Pat Leuchtman

In addition to Terrariums: Gardens Under Glass I will also giveaway a copy of my book The Roses at the End of the Road, which is now a history of our life and gardens at the End of the Road in Heath, a history that ended when we  bought a new house in Greenfield.

To win this Giveaway all you have to do is leave a comment below and I will have a drawing on December 14. I will notify the winner and get the address for mailing the books.

Is Your Poinsettia an Annual or Perennial?

Poinsettia

Poinsettia

Do you treat your Christmas Poinsettia as an annual, and throw it way when it finally loses all those beautiful bracts, or do you care for it, baby it, and suffer its dormancy in order to bring it back into glorious bloom next December?

Can you guess which approach I take with a Christmas poinsettia?

I’ll give you a hint. This is my second poinsettia, a gift from my husband. I left my first one in the car. Overnight. Temperatures down to 10 degrees.

 

Mary Gardens for Meditation

Rosemary in Bloom

Rosemary in Bloom

Mary Gardens do not bloom in December, but since the liturgical season of Advent is a time of waiting for the momentous birth of the Christ Child I cannot help but think about what a confusing time it must have been for Mary.

All mothers waiting for the arrival of their first child often feel confused because emotions can range from frightened to joyous. What will the birth be like? What will the baby be like? What will the woman be like once she is a mother?

I think about Mary on that long donkey ride to Bethlehem. Mothers are weary and expectant during that last month of pregnancy as the baby comes closer and closer to being a reality. The very young Mary must still have been trying to get her mind around the memory of the angel who told her she would carry this special child, and the visit to her cousin Elizabeth which was more confirmation that this child was going to be very special.

In ancient times the pagan goddesses all had flowers associated with their personalities. For example, the rose and the lily are connected with Venus, denoting her love and her purity. Mary is a unique figure to all Christians; it is no surprise that over the centuries such a figure would have many stories grow up around her. In an age when most of the population was illiterate, symbols were important to storytelling. In Mary’s story various plants became symbols of her character and the events in her life. Some people have taken those symbols to create a Mary Garden where they might meditate on her life.

Most paintings of the Annunciation, show an angel appearing with a white lily to tell Mary that she would bear a son who would ‘be the greatest and shall be called the son of the Highest.” The lily, white for purity with a golden heart, is the first symbol of Mary and is considered essential to any Mary Garden. The second symbol, the iris, is more important because of its sword-like foliage than its flower. When Mary and Joseph presented the new baby in the templeSimeon said, “This child is destined to be a sign which men will reject; and you too shall be pierced to the heart.” Confusion upon confusion – angels, shepherds, wise men and dire warnings, and she just a new mother with a baby.

Mary came to be called the Mystical Rose and so roses are also necessary in a Mary garden. Thornless roses symbolize Mary who herself was declared born without sin, and all the roses with thorns stand for the rest of humanity with all their faults and failings. Roses for Mary are either white for purity, or red for the passion.

Myth and legend grew up around Mary and many flowers were thought to refer to her domestic life. I can imagine women over the ages thinking of the ways they share Mary’s duties and chores. Mending is no longer a major chore, but Mary’s Candle is one name for the giant mullein (Verbascum), its tall yellow flower spike standing in  for a candle that provided light for Mary while she mended the Christ Child’s clothing. Right by her side would have been her tools, Our Lady’s Thimble, otherwise known as the Bluebells of Scotland, and Our Lady’s Pincushion, the Scabiosa.

Many other flowers are connected with Mary from the common marigold which is Mary’s gold, only to be found in nature, the blue of forget-me-nots as clear as Mary’s eyes, and Our Lady’s Keys, the primrose. Some of these associations make more sense than others, but all are beautiful in a garden.

The first garden known to be dedicated to Mary was created by the Irish St. Fiacre in the 7th century. The first record of a Mary Garden was a 15th century listing of plants for the St. Mary’s garden written by the sacristan at the Norwich Priory in England.

The flowers in a Mary Garden are an aid to meditation. Spring brings us columbine for Mary’s shoes, and alchemilla for lady’s mantle for her cloak. Pulmonaria, and other plants with white mottled foliage have been called milkwort or Mary’s milkdrops. You can see that many flowers for a Mary Garden are humble cottage or wildflowers, as unassuming at Mary herself.

A Mary Garden could also include a ground cover like vinca (Virgin flower), foxglove or Our Lady’s Glove, pansies or Our Lady’s Delight, or lilies of the valley for the tears she shed after the crucifixion.

It is thought that the first Mary Garden in the United States was planted at St. Joseph’s Church in Woods Hole on Cape Cod in 1932. Full information about this garden, and MaryGardens in general can be found at the University of Dayton in Ohio,http://campus.udayton.edu/mary/resources/m_garden/marygardensmain.html.

Even if you don’t have an outdoor garden, you can have a Mary Garden. All it takes is an image of the Holy Mother, and potted plants like the prayer plant (Maranta leucoreura) whose foliage closes in the evening like praying hands, and rosemary. My own rosemary plant is producing tiny blue flowers right now, a reminder of the legend that on the flight to Egypt the Holy Family stopped so that Mary could wash the Christ Child’s clothes. She asked plants nearby if she could hang the wet clothes on them to dry but only the rosemary bush consented. To this day rosemary’s blue flowers are a reminder of Mary in her blue cloak.

When you need a respite from the happy holiday hullabaloo, take a few minutes to sit quietly with your plants, no matter which, and meditate on the joys of the season.

Don’t Forget: You can win a copy of Rochelle Greayer’s fabulous book Cultivating Garden Style, AND a copy of The Roses at the End of the Road by Yours Truly simply by leaving a comment here by midnight, December 13.  I will randomly choose a  winner of this Giveaway celebrating 7 years of blogging at commonweeder on Sunday, December 14. Thank you Timber Press.

Between the Rows   November 30, 2014

An Incredible Tale of Squash Strength

My Lakota squash

My Lakota squash

Turkey, squash and pumpkin pie are the Thanksgiving triumvirate. And we will give thanks for all three, as well as the oyster stuffing, creamed onions and all the rest. A groaning board indeed to stand in for all the blessings the year has brought us.

Thanksgiving has been a tradition from our founding, but the harvest has been marked with festivities probably since the invention of agriculture. Squash was probably a part of our first thanksgiving meal because we know the Narragansett natives called this vegetable ‘askutasquash’ which means raw or uncooked. The Pilgrims shortened the name and before long were cooking and sweetening squash with maple syrup.

But what else do we know about squash?

We know squash and pumpkin belong to the same Cucurbita family.

We also know Cucurbita pepo is the family of what we call summer squash and it is probably the oldest squash family going back to 6000 BC. These squash originated in northern Mexico and in the warmer sections of North America. Cucurbita moschata developed later, around 3000 BC in Central and northern South America. These winter squash varieties spread throughout South America before Columbus landed. Their great benefit was that they could be stored for several months without rotting or losing flavor.

Cucurbita maxima includes pumpkins and originated in the valleys of the Andes mountains of northern Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. They remained very local and did not travel much beyond that area until the Spaniards arrived.

We know that New World plants including squash made their way to the Old World, where farmers and breeders multiplied the few varieties into many. Squash obviously did better in the warmer climates of Spain and Italy. We even know that squash was being eaten in Japan by 1600.

We know that Hubbard squash, butternut squash and pumpkins are among the very few varieties of squash to be found in the supermarket. If we go to the farmer’s market we may find a few other varieties that are less familiar. If you join the Seed Savers Exchange you can help preserve the many heirloom varieties of these common vegetables. I took a look into my Whole Seed Catalog from Baker Creek Heirloom seeds to get an idea of how many heirloom squash varieties there are. Listed are 30 varieties of summer squash and 96 varieties of winter squash and pumpkins.

We know squash are easy to grow. Some of these heirlooms would be fun to grow just because they are so beautiful or so weird looking. Iran (C. maxima) is billed as one of the most beautiful squash “with a unique foam green rind that is mottled in soft peachy orange.” The name Red Warty Thing gives you a good idea of the squash’s appearance.  For myself I harvested Lakota squash this year, a variety grown by the Lakota Sioux.

One old variety, the Boston Marrow, has a local history. In 1831 (or thereabouts) Mr J. M. Ives of Salem got seeds from a friend in Northampton who got them from a friend in Buffalo “after a tribe of Native Americans traveled through the area distributing seed.” These big orange-red squashes were the most popular commercially grown squash in our region for 150 years. Currently, the Boston Marrow has a place in the Slow Foods ‘Ark of Taste’ for its superior flavor.

The big Hubbard squash originated in Chile or Argentina and came to North America via the West Indies. It is thought that Captain Knott Martin, a North American seaman who traveled those routes to South America and the Caribbean, brought seeds to Marblehead, Massachusetts. We know that James J.H. Gregory, farmer and seedsman, was selling those seeds in 1844. We have been eating squash in Massachusettss for a long time.

So we know a fair amount about squash, but do we know how strong it is?

1875 Squash in Cage at the University of Massachusetts

1875 Squash in Cage at the University of Massachusetts

In 1875 William Smith Clark, President of Massachusetts Agricultural College, and a few of the faculty members wondered about this. They knew that tree roots could disrupt stone walkways. They also knew that even a bean seed had to “lift comparatively heavy masses of soil as it germinated.” But they did not know if anyone had ever tried to measure the expansive force of a growing plant. They determined to design their own experiment and President Clark wrote it up in the Annual Report for 1875.

They got seeds of the mammoth yellow Chili squash from J.H. Gregory in Marblehead and planted them in a specially prepared bed in Durfee Conservatory. The bed, 50 feet long, and four feet wide was filled to a depth of six inches with good soil and rich compost. The squash germinated and grew vigorously.

The Report states, “Never before has the development of a squash been observed more critically or by a greater number of people. Many thousands of men, women, and children from all classes of society, of various nationalities and from all quarters of the earth visited it.”

In addition to measuring the strength of the squash they measured the roots. The description of that process is long but they determined that after they counted every fine root there were about 15 miles of roots. They also estimated that they were growing at the rate of 1000 feet a day.

Then they devised a kind of metal basket or cage to hold the squash to which they arranged a fulcrum and lever that was changed regularly to hold increasing weights. The squash was planted on July 1 and on August 21 it lifted 60 pounds. On the 24th it lifted 162 pounds. By September 11 it lifted 1100 pounds and at the end of September it lifted 2015 pounds. The final measurement on October 31 was 5000 pounds!  All supported by a squash that weighed 47 pounds.

I hope that this year you will all enjoy your Thanksgiving squash with a new appreciation for its vitality and strength.

Between the Rows    November 22, 2014

 

 

The Road to Thanksgiving

The road to Thanksgiving

The road to Thanksgiving

The road to Thanksgiving leads from our house to our daughter’s house. We were trying to beat the big snowstorm but we met it on the way. Fortunately, the snow did not get beyond pretty by the time we arrived.

The makings of Thanksgiving

The makings of Thanksgiving

Our assignment for the Family Feast was to bring a farm fresh turkey, cranberry sauce and cranberry bread and my famous Green Apple Mincemeat Pie. Still a lot to do before the rest of the family arrives tomorrow.

Happy Thanksgiving to all! Be well. Eat well.

Garlic Harvest Fresh Out of the Ground

Garlic Harvest 2014

Garlic Harvest 2014

This morning I dug up my 35 hard neck garlic bulbs. My garlic harvest is looking pretty good and I am looking forward to entering them in the Heath Fair next month. Garlic is a wonderful crop. So easy. You begin with good seed garlic which you can get from a friend as I did, or go to a garlic farm like Filaree where you will be amazed at how many kinds of garlic there are to sample and enjoy. You can also go to the Garlic and Arts Festival in Orange which is about all things garlic, including seed garlic – but so much more!

I plant my garlic in good rich soil in mid to late October. I put on a layer of hay or straw mulch and forget about them. In  the spring garlic foliage will  rise above  the mulch and there is nothing to do until you see the twirly scapes appear. To make sure the bulbs as big as they can be, remove the scapes. Then let the bulbs continue to grow until  the foliage begins to yellow in mid-July in our area. Then dig the garlic carefully, shake off the soil, then wash the garlic bulbs with a hose. Cut off  the stalks and set them out to dry and cure. When dry cut off the roots. Do not take off all the protective skins. Of course you can use them any time after harvest. I have learned everything I know about garlic from Heath’s Garlic King, Rol Hesselbart, who I interviewed here. He gives the best instruction and advice!

Two garlic bulbs - why is there a difference?

Two garlic bulbs – why is there a difference?

Somehow I missed removing the scapes from two of the plants. See the difference? All the plants energy went into the bulb in the  plant on the Left, but some energy went into  the scape on the Right, making the useful  bulb smaller.

Once you have had a successful garlic harvest you can save a few of your very best garlic bulbs to use as seed. That is what I have done and now when I see garlic in the store it seems very puny. But  I rarely have to worry about that any more.  If you are a cook you can save some money by growing your own. All my garlic grew in a double 8 foot row. Not much space at all.

So, Dear Friends and Gardeners, have you ever grown garlic? How did you fare?

The New Year Arrives – 2014

 

The Heath Mowing

The noted essayist and poet Charles Lamb (1775-1834) said “New Year’s Day is everyman’s birthday.”

As I look at the snow covered mowing near the center of Heath, I cannot help thinking that the mowing is like the first day of the year. It is perfect and flawless as the new year begins. It seems filled with opportunity and the promise of a good harvest. There may be only sunny days and gentle rains. And yet we all know that wind and weather will also act on it over the year. Drought may dry the hay too soon, and rainstorms may turn it into swamp and rot the hay. Wind may blow down the circling trees. Pests and weeds may cause their own damage. But come the end of December, it is likely that the mowing will once again be perfectly and flawlessly covered with snow as a fresh year begins.

For many of us there are two New Year’s a year. The school schedule dies hard, and long after we have to go to school, or have children to send off to school there is something about the existence of the first day of school that allows us all a new beginning. We’ll do better, study more, be more disciplined, do our chores without complaining, and smile and look people in the eye when we meet. All behaviors we’ll be attempting most of our lives.

But on January 1 the whole world pauses and takes a step into a new year, with new hopes, new possibilities, new ideas, and renewed energy. I look at that field and I am looking into the future. I hope I have learned a few things as I have gone through life, but the view ahead always seems full of promise to me.

I have never been one for making great New Year’s Resolutions, except possibly swearing I really will get the garden under control this year. However, everyone will tell you I am a great believer in visualization. Simply by keeping the vision of some desired end in mind, I think you will go a long way to reaching that desired end. I don’t know how it works, but I think it does.

So, as I look ahead I see a garden that is different from this year’s garden. That is partly by plan, and partly caused by unforeseen opportunities, or the unpredictable vagaries of the weather. More unpredictable weather each year it seems. I don’t know that the garden will be any more under control, but I have a list of projects,: plants to be removed, plants to be added, trellises to be built, favorite vegetables to include, and new varieties to try. Those are not resolutions; those are plans capable of change at any moment.

The British author Neil Gaiman has written many award winning books for adults and teens. For Christmas I gave The Graveyard Book to a grandson, and I recently came across a new year’s wish of Gaiman’s, intended for us all. “My wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life. Make your mistakes, next year and forever.”

I think this is good advice for all of who will be called up to do new things in the new year. Of course, I have to remind myself to be patient with all those New Mistakes – mistakes that I make, and mistakes that those around me make.

I know I will mistakes in 2014, because I made mistakes in 2013. Most of them were not glorious, amazing mistakes. You can make mistakes in actions taken, but also in actions not taken.

So as I take a last fleeting look at 2013, I am grateful for the love of my family, for laughter shared with old friends. I am grateful that my back and knees are still willing to bend for digging and weeding. I am grateful to be a part of groups like the Friends of the Heath Library, the Shelburne Falls Area Women’s Club and the Bridge of Flowers committee because they give me the chance to make new friends, to learn, and to serve my community.

So now I will turn face forward and march confidently into 2014, into the new year, into new garden plans, and into preparations for unexpected pleasures and opportunities. I embrace the thought of the noted 20th century Broadway critic Brooks Atkinson who said “Drop the last year into the silent limbo of the past. Let it go, for it was imperfect, and thank God that it can go.”

What do you look forward to, and visualize for 2014?

Happy New Year from the End of the Road

Bella and The Major

Happy New Year! We started celebrating on New Year’s Eve Eve with Chinese.

Bella and the Major and a toast

Thank heaven, and cousin Tricia for homemade gingerale.

Bella Sliding

What’s the point of snow?  Sledding!

Bella and sled

Who cares if it’s only 15 degrees? Not Bella!

Bella and Granny

We can always warm up baking cookies – and taking them to a friend.

A great beginning to 2014!

For more (almost) Wordlessness this Wednesday click here.