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

Dear Friend and Gardener

After Pollinators and Wildflowers Comes a Cocktail Hour

Pollinator Friendly Gardening by Rhonda Fleming Hayes

Pollinator Friendly Gardening by Rhonda Fleming Hayes

It doesn’t seem so very long ago that no one gave a thought to pollinators. People were afraid of bees and stings, but they never thought about the hundreds of bee species that kept vegetable and fruit farms producing. Perhaps that was because so much of our food came from far off places like California where we were never aware of what farms, farmers and crops needed.

Nowadays, with people we are more sensible of the benefits of local farms and local food. We realize that at least 30% of the world’s food crops need to be pollinated. Happily there are many more bees and insects that do this important job than we ever imagined. Unhappily human civilization continues to encroach on the habitat that pollinators need. Developments of all sorts, housing, business and even agriculture are taking land that was wild, land that provided the plants and living spaces that bees and other pollinators need to thrive.

Pollinator Friendly Gardening: Gardening for Bees, Butterflies and other Pollinators by Rhonda Fleming Hayes (Voyageur Press $21.99) notes that our awareness of the needs of pollinators has been raised. Hayes has set about showing us how we homeowners can take responsibility for improving pollinator habitat right in our own backyards.

Hayes interviews pollinator experts to talk about the value of native plants versus ‘nativars,’ native plants that have been hybridized; the problems created by GMOs; the need for shelter for pollinators; and the necessity of many other beneficial insects.

She provides plant lists to help us include useful plants for pollinators, plants that bloom throughout the season providing nectar, and food for caterpillars. Once I realized how important dill and parsley were to the swallowtail butterfly caterpillars, I never again bemoaned loosing my crop to those caterpillars.

Pollinator Friendly Gardening includes occasional Fun Facts, as well. Did you know that the bees in White House kitchen garden produce enough honey to give as gifts at state dinners and to visiting diplomats? That a single little mason bee does as much pollinating as 100 honeybees? That milkweed seed capsules were collected during WWII so that the fluffy seed material could be used to fill servicemen’s lifejackets?

Hayes, a Master Gardener, has gardened, photographed, and written in various locations and in Minneapolis for the last few years.

Wildflowers of New England by Ted Elliman

Wildflowers of New England by Ted Elliman

Ted Elliman and the New England Wild Flower Society have put together a comprehensive new wildflower guide that has images and information of over 1000 native plants. This book not only has beautiful and helpful images, the introductory section is a veritable course in botany that will help you to identify the plants you find on your nature walks. Since 90% of the wild plants around the world need pollination I can’t help thinking how wildflowers would suffer without pollinators.

Wildflowers of New England (Timber Press $27.95) is very easy to use because it provides a clear road to identitification. You begin with color, but within the color sections plants are organized by petal design and number. For example red Kalmia angustifolia with 5 radial petals is listed after dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis) which has 4 radial petals.

With this guide I have hopes of finally differentiating between 11 varieties of aster from 4 different genus: Doellingeria; Oligoneurn; and Symphyotrichum. Of course, the fleabanes (Erigeron) are similar (to my uneducated eye) but I think I stand a fighting chance of knowing one from the other because of the clear photographs and text.

Wildflowers of New England is a substantial little book, in many ways, but the heavy, shiny cover, complete with ruler marking, is tough enough to take on hikes for frequent, on- site referrals.

After all the joyous work of studying pollinators and wildflowers, you might be ready for The Cocktail Hour Garden: Creating Evening Landscapes for Relaxation and Entertaining by C.L. Fornari (St. Lynn’s Press $19.95) who lives out on Cape Cod.

The Cocktail Hour Garden by C. L. Fornari

The Cocktail Hour Garden by C. L. Fornari

Fornari suggests we consider our domestic landscape as a party venue, beginning with a quiet cup of coffee in the morning and all kinds of family celebrations that might take place in the garden, to a companionable cocktail hour with a spouse or friends in the evening.

What plants should be included in this garden? Some plants can provide tactile experiences like the soft blades of Mexican feather grass or velvety silver lamb’s ears. Fragrance on the evening air can be supplied by perennials honeysuckle, lavender, oriental lilies. Don’t forget fragrant annuals like Virginia stocks or nicotiana.

Fornari also makes suggestions about lighting, water in many forms, and sound in the garden that can be enjoyed by the gardener, but she also writes about keeping butterflies and birds happy too.

Since this is a cocktail hour garden she is talking about, she also includes cocktail recipes, including non-alcoholic drinks, and the herbs and  flowers that can dress up and spike those drinks. Her tone is conversational, a charming invitation to join her for a cocktail and conversation at the end of the day.

Between the Rows   April 9, 2016

 

 

How to Start Seeds Indoors

Seed starting supplies

Seed starting supplies

It is easy and fun to start seeds indoors. Seeds are just magical – tiny bits of stuff that can turn into a delicious fruit or vegetable or gorgeous flower with only the help of a little soil, sun and rain. That magic is available to us all. All of us can plant seeds, and wave our magic wands to keep ourselves busy while we watch the magic show produced by Mother Earth, Father Sun and Sister Rain.

The first thing we need to know is the likely date of the last frost. We used to think this date was Memorial Day, but weather is unpredictable. These days we might calculate an earlier date.

I plant most of my seeds directly in the garden. Some vegetables are very hardy and can be planted in April. Lettuce is a cool weather crop that can be planted as soon as soil can be worked. Lettuce loves temperatures of about 60 degrees.

One of the most dependable ways to determine when you can plant outdoors is to test the temperature of the soil, not only the temperature of the air. If soil temperature is 45 degrees lettuces will germinate and grow. The Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog lists the most optimum soil temperatures for the different crops. A soil thermometer costs approximately $13.

However, many gardeners like to start seeds indoors. This doesn’t require much work or equipment. Starting your own herbs, tomatoes and peppers, or cosmos and zinnias can give you a headstart on the season, lots of plants, and some fun. Seeds can usually be started indoors between four to six weeks before you expect to plant them outdoors. By mid-May you can plant nearly everything outdoors, especially if you use row covers for the most tender.

To begin you need containers for sterile soilless seed starting mix. This can be the plastic foam containers that various food products come in if they will hold a couple of inches of seed starting mix. They would need to have drainage holes put in the bottom. You can also make pots out of recycled newspapers.  I do not recommend egg cartons or egg shells because as cute as they might be, they do not hold enough soil to stay moist very long. Seeds need constant moisture to germinate.

For a small investment you can buy a plastic tray and plastic cell flats or peat pots. This arrangement will allow you to water your seeds from below which is the easiest and best way.

If you buy and use small peat pots keep them in a tray and make sure you use enough water to soak the peat pots otherwise the pot itself will wick water away from the seed. Seedlings started in peat pots will not need transplanting. The whole pot just gets put in the ground – after you have removed all the extra seedlings, leaving only one.

You can mix your own seed starting mix. You’ll need one third, sphagnum peat moss, one third finished compost, and one third vermiculite. A light mix makes it easier for seeds to grow. Do not use garden soil.

Dampen your planting mix. I use large cell flats so that I do not have to transplant seedlings twice. I fill each cell with damp mix, put two or three seeds in each cell and cover lightly with more mix. I keep my flats in a tray and put water in the tray every day which will be absorbed by osmosis into the cells. You want the soil mix to be consistently damp, not waterlogged or you may get damping off fungus which will kill your seedlings.

You can also buy a clear plastic cover for your tray. This will make a little greenhouse, slow down evaporation and warm the planting mix. When the seeds begin to germinate prop the cover up slightly so there is some air circulation. Once the seedling is fully germinated remove the cover.

Different seeds have different germination schedules. Seed packets usually tell you how long you’ll have to wait to see the emergence of a tiny shoot. Nowadays, you can buy electric heated seed starting mats, which will help germination, but these are not vital. If you do use a heat mat, the flats should be removed from the mat once the seedling has germinated.

Seedlings in front of a Heath window

Seedlings in front of a Heath window

Seedlings also need light. You can put your flats in front of a sunny window. Once the seeds have germinated you will need to keep turning the flats because the seedlings will always be leaning toward the sun.

You can also use grow lights. I use both methods because the little grow light I inherited will only accommodate a few flats.

Your carefully tended seedlings can grow happily in this nursery for four to six weeks, depending on the crop. When there is no danger of frost prepare them for planting.

You can’t take your seedlings directly out of the house and plant them outside. They need to be hardened off. Spring breezes and direct sun are too much for the tender seedlings to tolerate. Every day, for a week or two, bring them outdoors in a protected spot for a while, increasing the time a little more each day.

If you want to transplant your hardened off seedlings into the soil as soon as possible, you can use row covers set over wire hoops. These permeable lightweight covers capture warmth and protect plants from wind and light frost. They will also protect plants from some pests.

Spring weather is exciting. Gardeners need to temper their excitement. Our weather is so unpredictable these days that it is hard to think of a schedule for seed starting and transplanting. The gardener needs to consider the needs of the particular plant and his particular site and climate.

Happy planting.

Between the Rows   March 19, 2016

 

 

 

Groundcovers for a Lawn-less Garden.

Barren strawberry

Waldstenia, barren strawberry

One of the goals we had for our new Greenfield garden was to make it  lawnless. We certainly did not want a wild lawless garden, but we did not want large areas of grass that would need mowing. To prove his devotion to this goal my husband bought an inexpensive power lawn mower and said that it would probably last two years. He was giving me two years to design and plant a garden that would not include lawn that needed mowing.

In Heath I made small efforts to use ground covers. After I realized that the common thyme in my herb garden, and at the edge of the piazza was seeding itself in our field, I began dividing the exuberantly growing thyme and replacing a patch of grass with a shovelful of a thyme division. It took very little effort, and a generous post-planting watering to make sure the thyme roots were making good contact with the soil.

Elegant English gardens often feature a section of thyme garden, allowing it to bloom before mowing it down and waiting for another bloom time. Thyme does fine in ordinary soil and doesn’t mind being walked on. Thyme lawns work equally well in New England. We did mow the Heath lawns, but the thyme sections got fewer mowings so we felt we were taking a step in the right direction.

I did remove the turf of two lawn sections planting Waldsteinia fragarioides or barren strawberry in one area, and tiarella or foam flower in another. Both are hardy, native to the United States, bloom in April into May, and  tolerate sun or partial shade. I never needed to water these plants.

Barren strawberry with its frilly scalloped leaves bears sunny golden spring flowers on stems no more that eight inches tall in the spring. A single plant will soon cover a two foot square area, more quickly if the soil is good. It spreads by runner.

Tiarella, foam flower

Tiarella, foam flower

Foamflower  can tolerate partial to full shade. The creeping heart- shaped leaves cover the ground and the stems can reach up to 12 inches and are covered with airy, one might say foamy, white flowers in May.

Epimedium rubra

Epimedium rubra

It is sometimes difficult to find plants that will thrive in dry shade. I was not very confident when I planted my first Epimedium rubra with delicate pink flowers because I thought it was very tender. But it proved happy in Heath, and spread into such a good clump that I was able to give divisions to friends. I later planted Epimedium x versicolor ‘Suphureum’ which had spurred yellow blossoms held above the foliage and was an equally strong grower. These delicate looking plants are actually hardy, the dainty flowers borne on wiry stems are often called fairy hats.

The Epimedium world was a lot larger than I imagined and there is an excellent epimedium nursery in Templeton, Massachusetts which offers scores of epimedium cultivars. You can view the online catalog at www.epimediums.com which also gives the only dates when you can actually visit in May and see the plants in bloom.

Epimedium sulphureum

Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’

I have never grown wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens, but I have seen it growing in the shady woods. It prefers acid, moist but well drained soil. This plant is no more than six inches tall, with shiny dark green leaves and red berries. When you crush the leaves you will get the sweet wintergreen fragrance.

It is possible that many of us know partridgeberry, Mitchella repens, from its appearance in Berry Bowls during the Christmas season. This is a real creeper, only one or two inches tall with tiny leaves, white flowers in the spring and red berries in the fall and winter.

Barren strawberry, foam flower, epimediums, wintergreen and partridgeberry are all good choices for a shady woodland garden which is one way I am hoping to have a lawnless garden.

Pachysandra is a common groundcover beloved because it attractive with glossy toothed foliage, as well as hardy and dependable, happily growing and spreading under trees. However, the pachysandra that is available at most nurseries is Pachysandra terminalis which has been known to be invasive. The alternative is Pachysandra procumbens, otherwise known as Allegheny spurge. This pachysandra does not have the glossy leaves, but it does have more distinctive flowers in the spring, fragrant bottlebrush spikes rising a few inches above the foliage.

So far, I have only mentioned low growing groundcovers that will grow in the shade. However, shrubs can also be an answer. I have a friend who has planted a tapestry of creeping junipers. Many junipers grow rapidly, covering a six foot square area in a year or two. My friend’s junipers were planted to cover the space she wanted in two years, but she said they are amenable to pruning and easy to keep under control. Junipers prefer full sun and a well draining soil. They do not like to be wet.

Low growing junipers do not limit themselves to a dull green. Juniperus horizontalis Wiltonii, has a blue-green tone and creeps along, only eight inches high. Golden Carpet is even more mat-like at for inches high, with charteuse-gold foliage.

Groundcovers are only one way to have a lawn-less garden. I’ll explore other methods in future.

Between the Rows   February 20, 2016

Plentiful Primroses

 

Primroses

Primroses from Fosters

Earlier this week I entered Foster’s Market and the first thing I saw was a bank of primroses. I could not have been happier. Many years ago I bought a pot of Foster’s primroses and after the blossoms had gone by I saved the plant until spring tip toed in. I planted it at the edge of a wooded spot in our Heath backyard. I didn’t do much in the way of preparation, just digging with a trowel and adding a couple of handfuls of compost. The primroses did increase with no help from me and were still blooming last spring. Those pale primroses were not my last. I bought more primroses at Fosters, adding richer and more brilliant red, and purple varieties.

Of course, having seen the new array I had to buy four pots (two pots for $7) in shades of primrose cream, yellow and gold. They made a lovely centerpiece on the dining table for a luncheon with friends. There are over 500 species of primula, but I believe the species on my table is P. vulgaris, sometimes called the English primrose. They will also go into the garden when the time comes.

Another primrose for the wild garden is P. veris. The flowers are very similar to the English primrose but they form pendulous clusters on slightly taller stems, up to 10 or 12 inches. This is the primrose that is referred to as cowslips in Shakespeare’s plays like The Tempest. Ariel sings his  song, “Where the bee sucks, there suck I. In a cowslip’s bell I lie.”

Over the years I have admired other primroses. I visited a friend one wet spring and she showed me the pale pink Japanese primroses growing in a shallow stream. Most P. japonica primroses bloom in shades of pink and white. These are a candelabra type with tiers of blossoms held high on a stem that can be two feet tall. They obviously like water and reseed freely making a lovely wild planting in the shade. This seems like a perfect plant for my very wet Greenfield garden.

While the P. japonica have a candelabra form, there are other types in this large candelabra family. P. bulleyana is tall with apricot/orange blooms bringing color later in the season. It also likes the wet and will naturalize quickly. P. beesiana is another candelabra variety, about two feet tall, with pinky/purple blossoms blooming from spring into summer. These primroses, like most that have enough of a stem, are good cutting flowers for bouquets.

Primula tommasinii You and Me Blue is a very unusual primrose that has a double blossom, but it does not have double the number of petals, it has a second blossom growing up from the first blossom on an 8 to 12 inch stem. It is called a hose-in-hose flower named after a type of hose that men wore in the 1500s. Blue is an unusual color in primroses, so this is a fascinating flower on at least two levels.

Many primulas are hardy to zone 5 and are not difficult to grow given rich soil, moisture and some shade. But there are other varieties that have very different requirements.

The auriculas are a group of primroses that are ideal for a partly shady spot with neutral or slightly alkaline soil. They are alpine plants and do well in a rock garden that can be top dressed with fine gravel. Auriculas have a more dramatic form comprised of richly colored petals surrounding a white or pale center. Most also have a pale coating that is called ‘farina’ and is considered desirable, especially if you are entering your auricula in a flower show. Unlike the candelabra primroses they do not come true from seed, nor do they reseed themselves as freely.

Primroses

Primroses in the garden

I never attempted to divide my primroses, leaving them to their own devices, and gave them no attention after planting. They did increase in size, but not to the extent that is possible.

Dividing primroses can be done after blooming after deadheading, or in the early fall. A clump can be dug up and the corms can be seen and pulled apart gently. The new planting spot should be enriched with rotted manure or good compost. Then the leaves can be cut back to three inches, as well as the roots. Cutting back in this way will encourage the division to make new strong roots without needing to feed lush foliage. They can be fertilized again after replanting with non-nitrogen fertilizers. We want to concentrate on building new roots, not new foliage.

Aside from Foster’s Market which sells primroses for a brief period I don’t know where you can buy plants locally. Portland Nursery and Garden Center in Portland, Washington sells a selection of primula varieties (www.portlandnursery.com, and I did find Primula tomasinii You and Me Blue at Bluestone Perennials (www.bluestoneperennials.com) among their selection of single and frilly double primulas.

I don’t often see primroses in gardens so I am especially looking forward to having my own bank of P. japonica, luxuriating in my wet garden. Even though I am now living in town I am trying to create a woodland garden, a garden unlike my sunny hill garden. This woodland garden will be a response to my very different site, to my desire for more native plants that will support birds and pollinators, and (I hope) it will be less labor intensive.

Primroses

Primroses

Between the Rows  January 23, 2016

Everything Changes – in the garden and everywhere

Planting in a Post Wild World

Planting in a Post-Wild World

Everything changes. Change on all fronts is inescapable, unstoppable and inevitable. No one knows this more than a gardener who watches her garden change over the years.

In 2016 I will be gardening in a new garden, a smaller garden, a garden that will not require as much maintenance as the Heath garden. It is also a garden with very different features. The soil is heavy clay. The soil is very wet and drains slowly.  There is a lot of shade.

With the help of noted landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy’s Home Outside Palette app my husband and I began to layout and plant garden beds, concentrating on water loving, or water tolerant native shrubs.  My desire was to have a kind of woodland garden instead of perennial beds .

Over the years I have become more and more interested in native plants, and more and more aware of their value in maintaining the health of our ecosystems. Certain books have led me along this path including Bringing Nature Home by entomologist Douglas Tallamy. Tallamy also collaborated with Rick Darke on The Living Landscape: Designing for beauty and biodiversity in the home garden. Darke is a landscape lecturer and photographer who proves that a biodiverse garden can be beautiful.

Most recently Timber Press sent me a copy of Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West.

One of their goals is to help gardeners create beautiful gardens that more closely replicate the ways plants grow in the wild even in urban and suburban situations.  “The good news is that it is entirely possible to design plantings that look and function more like they do in the wild: more robust, more diverse, and more visually harmonious with less maintenance. The solution lies in understanding plantings as communities of compatible species that cover the ground in interlocking layers.”

While Rainer and West value native species, they call their philosophy “a middle way” in which layered plantings mean more room for compatible non-natives (never invasives) and a greater diversity of beneficial plants. They want to focus on naturally occurring plant communities which means paying less attention to purely native plantings and concentrating on performance and adaptability. Their idea is to make our relationship to nature a collaborative one.

I should mention here that the book is lavishly illustrated with beautiful photographs that give an explicit view of what they are talking about. Photographs show the differences in landscapes from the humble hellstrip along a sidewalk to flowery meadows, droughty hillsides and woodlands.

Rainer and West lay out five basic principles. The first is to concentrate on related populations, not isolated indivduals. This means not planting the Echinacea next to the sedum next to the hellebore. It means letting plants self-seed and intermingle, as they do in nature. My own Heath lawn, or flowery mead as I called it, is a case in point.

Principle two: Stress can be an asset. This is often how we get to naturally occurring plant communities.

Principle three: Cover the ground densely by vertically layering plants. This is a reminder that bare soil does not exist in nature and we can find plants to fill every niche of space and soil type and let nature do some of that filling in.

Principle four: Make it attractive and legible. This principle will calm those who wonder if all Rainer and West desire is messy, weedy woodland. They are realists they say, and “designed plant communities can be patterned and stylized in a way that makes them understandable, ordered and attractive. They need not replicate nature in order to capture its spirit.”  They suggest ‘frames’ which can be pathways or other hardscape elements like fences or walls.

Principle five: Management, not maintenance. Gardeners know you cannot plant a garden and then sit back and admire it indefinitely. But with good management you can eliminate many chores, weeding, watering, spraying, etc. This is possibly my favorite principle.

The penultimate chapter gives specific instruction on planting and maintaining a plant community.

Planting in a Post-Wild World is a dense, but readable book. Not all the ideas are brand new but they are presented in new ways, broadening their applicability, and showing how we can adapt them to our own situation. Rainer and West believe the time is right for a horticultural renaissance where plantings will be ecologically diverse, functional and sound, but will also be beautiful, understandable and appealing to the gardener and her friends.

I made a start on a new and different garden this past summer, but there is a lot of work to do in 2016 to make it functional in the ways I first imagined, and in new ways as well. I am now dreaming of a hugelkulture project. Stay tuned. I am also thinking of how I can expand on the plans I made for covering the ground in my new, and soon to be enlarged beds. I think I can be bolder about letting plants intermingle. I want to work towards the plateau of management.

How will you and your garden change in 2016?

Between the Rows  January 2, 2016

Gift Books for the Gardener

At my house every gift giving occasion should include a book, or three. Every year there is a new crop of books to help new and experienced gardeners keep up with new trends and techniques, and find new ways to make their gardens, indoors and out, more beautiful and/or productive. Here is a sampling of new books for the gardener.

Fruit Gardener's Bible

Fruit Gardener’s Bible by Lewis Hill and Leonard Perry

Fruit Gardener’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Growing Fruit and Nuts in the Home Garden by Lewis Hill and Leonard Perry ($25 Storey Publishing)

Lewis Hill’s books have been with me almost ever since we moved to Heath and planned to start producing a lot of our food. I constantly referred to his book Cold Climate Gardening, Fruits and Berries for the HomeGarden, and Pruning Simplified. Lewis Hill was a Vermonter who did his best to help gardeners in their endeavors. He passed away in 2008, but his good friend and colleague Leonard Perry took on the job of revising Hill’s book on growing berries and fruits.

The Fruit Gardener’s Bible is a truly encyclopedic work. In revising the book Perry has updated and included new information about sustainable practices including biological pest and disease control. He also discusses the ways gardeners want to incorporate fruits and nuts into their ornamental landscapes to make use of their beauty as well as their harvests. In addition there are many new varieties of common fruits and more interest in less familiar fruits like loganberries and hardy kiwis.

Hill was a lifelong Vermonter and his writings tended to concentrate on gardens for the New England climates. Perry has expanded the scope of crops and the needs of gardeners who live where the climate posses different challenges.

This book has a focus on organic techniques and provides information from propagating to harvesting. The photographs are beautiful and instructive.

Grow a Little Fruit Tree

Grow a Little Fruit Tree by Ann Ralph

Grow a Little Fruit Tree: Simple Pruning Techniques for Small-Space, Easy Harvest Fruit Trees by Ann Ralph ($17 Storey Publishing)

Ann Ralph’s book is dedicated to the idea that fruit trees can be kept small, no taller than you are, while remaining healthy and productive. What it takes is careful pruning. Her focus is on rootstocks instead of the semi-dwarf label which she criticizes as giving a false idea of how big a tree will grow.

I appreciated her attitude towards growing fruit – which is a good attitude for life. “When you garden, good results depend on three things: what you expect the plant to do, what the plant is capable of in the environment where you put it, and your willingness to contribute.”

Ralph’s prose has a charm and wisdom that would be enjoyable if you never dreamed of planting even a small tree.

Terrariums: Gardens Under Glass by Maria Colletti

Terrariums: Gardens Under Glass by Maria Colletti

Terrariums: Gardens Under Glass by Maria Colletti ($25 Cool Springs Press)

You may not aspire to creating a terrarium in an elegant Wardian case as shown on the cover of this book, but Maria Colletti will show you how to choose containers and plants that can be used to create the landscape of your choice, desert or woodland or tropical.

Colletti is the terrarium designer for the Shop in the Garden at the New YorkBotanical Garden and she loves experimenting with carnivorous plants, cacti, succulents, ferns and tropical plants. She gives us step by step projects with advice and sources for terrarium necessities. She shares traditional, standard and classic building steps but always invites experimentation.

Of course it is one thing to set up and plant a beautiful terrarium, but then maintenance is required to mange moisture. The goal is to reach a state of equilibrium so that you can get to a level of “hands off and enjoy.”

The Indestructible Houseplant by Tovah Martin

The Indestructible Houseplant by Tovah Martin

The Indestructible Houseplant: 200 Beautiful Plants That Everyone Can Grow by Tovah Martin ($23 Timber Press)

As far as I am concerned Tovah Martin is certainly the Queen of Houseplants. Readers who drooled over her earlier book The Unexpected Houseplant with special attention to gorgeous or surprising containers will be happy to see The Indestructible Houseplant.

Martin is a captivating writer and the layout of the book gives her plenty of scope. Along with a photograph of one of her own houseplants she gives an extended description of the plant including the different cultivars, and her own experiences with the plant. In addition there is a sidebar for each that lays out specific information about size, foliage, exposure, water requirements, soil type, fertilization schedule and companions that will live with it happily in the same container. She also includes a line for “other attributes” where she comments “famously indomitable” for aspidistra, “succulent, wonderfully bizarre and varied” for kalanchoe.

We often think the houseplant category is pretty limited, often because we see so few varieties in local garden centers, but Martin blasts that idea and gives us a pageful of sources for the indestructibles she has in her own collection. She begins with African violets and ends with Zamioculas samiifolia (ZZ to its friends) which has “no flowers but bulletproof.”

When to do what is often a big question for gardeners as we go through the year and the UMass Extension Garden Calendar for 2016 is available for $12 each plus $3.50 for mailing, and $2 for each additional calendar up to nine.  It includes one stunning and inspiring plant image for the month, daily gardening tips for our climate, sunrise and sunset times and more.

Between the Rows  December 11, 2015

Root Cellars and Root Vegetables

Root vegetables

Root vegetables at Green Fields Coop

Our Thanksgiving table will include  root vegetables like Yukon Gold potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, beets, parsnips and carrots.

Even the Pilgrims might have had some of these vegetables at the first Thanksgiving. Root vegetables were an important part of the food supply in Europe before canning and freezing were available. Root vegetables were harvested in the fall and stored for winter use without preserving them in some way, like pickling or drying.

When I was a child living on a Vermont farm I remember the bins filled with sand and carrots in the basement. There was also a root cellar dug into a hill beyond the house for potatoes. Added to my aunt’s canning, producing scores of jars of vegetables and fruit, she and my uncle managed to provide their family with a good measure of their family’s diet.

I even kept some carrots and beets in the basement of our Heath house in our early days there. However, a root cellar required more management skills and time than I possessed.  Last year the Heath Agricultural Society held a well attended Cellars and Cave tour, giving visitors from across the valley a look at what is entailed in operating a root cellar. Some cellars were used for vegetables, some for cheese, and some for homemade hard cider.

The cellars varied in complexity from what was essentially a large insulated closet in the garage for storing apples, onions and potatoes, to a more elaborate walled off corner of a basement that included a window and a flexible duct that made it possible to adjust airflow and temperature. Setting up a site with fairly consistent or adjustable chill and humidity is essential for a root cellar.

Those who are planning to try and keep vegetables and fruit like apples through even a part of the winter must begin by choosing vegetable varieties and apples that are most amenable to storage. For example, the McIntosh apple harvest is usually over in October, but the apples will only keep well through December. Other apples like the old New England Baldwin apple and newer varieties like Fuji will keep through the winter. Many of the old winter keepers are now more available than they were in the recent past.    The same is true for vegetables. Kennebec and Katahdin are among the list of good potatoes for storage, as Danvers and Scarlet Keeper are good storage carrots. Most catalogs will tell you which particular varieties will store well into the winter.

Root Cellaring: The Simple No-Processing Way to Store Fruits and Vegetables by Mike and Nancy Buble is a comprehensive book for those who are interested in storing some of their winter harvest. They give information about choosing specific crops, storage requirements, and the many ways of building a root cellar. My copy dates back to 1979, not long before we set up our first bins. Root Cellaring is still available and still a functional tool.

Most of us are happy to have a summer garden, enjoying freshly picked lettuce and tomatoes, as well as green beans, summer squash and peas of many varieties. Others of us will enjoy the challenge and satisfaction of setting up a root cellar, and eating our own root crops or other keepers like cabbage and Brussels sprouts.

I spoke to Dave Jackson at the 100 acre Enterprise Farm in Whately about how he keeps root crops. He says he uses a large walk in cooler. During the good weather the cooler keeps his summer vegetables fresh before they are packed up into CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) shares. In the winter he uses the cooler for vegetable storage, getting as much value as possible out of the farm’s infrastructure. When I was the Buckland Librarian I bought apples from the Scott Orchard, saw their enormous cooling room and got my first understanding of the way orchardists handle their harvest. Vegetable farmers have the same need.

Jackson agreed that local consumers are looking for more local food over a longer season. He said local farmers have found a variety of ways of keeping root crops available, from the basic old-fashioned root cellar to cooling rooms and solar power. All cold storage options need to keep a consistent cold temperature, usually between 36 to 45 degrees, depending on the crop.

Jackson also gave me a tip, in case I ever take up root cellaring again. He said apples should never be stored with carrots. I knew that apples produce ethylene gas that might cause other fruits to ripen more quickly, but I did not know that the ethylene gas might change the flavor of other fruits – or vegetables. I guess that is why our refrigerator produce drawers are marked to keep fruits and vegetables separate.

Greenfield’s farmer’s market used to be in business from May through October. Happily for us, local farmers have worked to meet our desire for more local food over a longer season. I attended the first Wintermarket in February of 2008. At this year’s second winter farmer’s market  I bought squash, parsnips, beets and carrots  and look forward to the next markets in December, January, February and March!

I see the growth of farmer’s markets, CSA farms, and roadside stands giving us a growing and stronger local food security. That is something to be thankful for.

Between the Rows   November 28, 2015

Time to Compost – Harvest the Biomass on the Ground

Front yard leaves - biomass

Front yard leaves – biomass

As far as I am concerned the leaves that fall in the fall tra-la are as welcome as the flowers that bloom in the spring. When I lived high on a windy hill in Heath all the leaves blew away. I helped a neighbor rake leaves, and took them away to my compost pile. I loved picking up a few bags of leaves that people left in front of their houses when I came into Greenfield to shop. I needed leaves for my compost pile. Now that I live in Greenfield I no longer have to go begging for autumn leaves.

If you have never set up a compost pile there are books like Let it Rot by Stu Campbell devoted to composting; many garden books give information about composting; and locally we have the Franklin County Waste Management District to give us directions about composting online at franklincountywastedistrict.org/composting.html.

After reading all the instructions my advice is not to worry about details too much and just begin. Compost is all about rotting organic material. Fast or slow the result is the same. So, just begin.

Don’t worry about ratios. Some directions seem to imagine us building a compost pile after we have been collecting enough green material like fresh grass clippings or spent annuals or other clippings, and sufficient brown materials like manure or dead leaves before we start our compost pile. Meat and bones are always forbidden. A compost pile should measure at least four feet high and wide. Sufficient size is necessary to build up heat in the rotting pile that will help break materials down and kill harmful pathogens and weed seeds. Explicit instructions like that have been known to stop me in my tracks.

Leaves - Biomass in the backyard November 10.

Leaves – Biomass in the backyard November 10.

Fall is a great time to start a compost pile because dried leaves, spent annuals and all the trimmings from cutback perennials make a good start for a compost pile. Alternate layers if you have green and brown materials, but don’t worry about it. Be sure to water the pile. A moist pile, not a drenched pile, will break down more quickly.

Compost directions always say to turn the pile periodically and that is certainly good advice, if not always easy to carry out. Some gardeners have the space and the forethought to build a three bin compost pile made out of cinder blocks or chicken wire or wooden slats. They begin the pile in space number one and when the space is full they turn the pile into space number two.  When number one is again full, fork number two into number three, and number one into number two. Then start filling number one. By the time number one is full again the composting materials in space number three should be ready to spread or dig into the soil. Continue in this manner forever.

I have seen an inexpensive compost aerator tool that you plunge into the pile. The tool has a long handle with little paddles at the bottom. When you pull the aerator out of the pile the paddles loosen and stir up the compost, letting in some air.

I have admired many compost piles, but mine have never been lovely or organized to look at. However they have made completed compost that helped me improve my Heath soil for over 30 years. Now I am beginning to improve my very poor, very heavy Greenfield soil.

I started with compost that I bought and we are lucky that we have Martin’s Farm right in Greenfield that composts on a major scale and sells compost, mulch, compo-mulch, and loam. Nearby is Bear Path Farm in Whately, also selling good compost. I needed to get my new garden off to a good start; compost and mulch were the way to do that.

Now that it is fall I am starting my own composting efforts in earnest. This summer I bought an Earth Machine compost bin at the Greenfield Transfer Station. I began by putting in weeds and kitchen scraps. Now I’m adding leaves that provide some real bulk. We also had some scrap fence wire and used it to build a special leaf compost container. It is about five feet tall and 4 feet in diameter. It is full of leaves, but they are already breaking down and we can keep adding leaves.

Cold compost pile

Cold Compost pile

Many years ago when Larry Lightner of Northfield was still alive and gardening he taught me about what he called cold composting with leaves. He made wire rings about three to four feet high and as large in diameter as he wished. He filled and refilled these rings with leaves over the course of the fall. In the spring the pile would have  shrunk substantially. He added more leaves if he had them. Then he would make an indentation in the leaves, fill it with a quart or so of good soil and plant vegetable or flower starts. It is important to keep plants in a cold compost bed well watered.

Lightner’s cold compost beds were essentially raised beds. They provided plenty of nutrition for his chosen plants. He could even plant and stake tomatoes on the outside of the wire ring. Their roots found plenty of sustenance from the nutrients going into the soil as the leaves broke down. The raised beds also kept neighborhood dogs and cats out of his garden beds.

I have another friend who told me she has an electric leaf shredder. Shredding leaves will certainly help leaves break down more quickly. She wants to use those shredded leaves as winter mulch on her garden beds. In the spring she told me they have pretty much turned into soil. Not much is left of the leaves at all.

There are many ways to make and use compost. It is a never fail project. It is a rewarding project. It is a project that benefits the garden, and keeps material out of the landfill or incinerator. Compost!

Another good link http://www.mass.gov/eea/docs/dep/recycle/cmppstr.pdf

Between the Rows   November 14, 2015

Thank you all for bearing with me while we hammered out the technical difficulties that kept the commonweeder off line for a few days.

American Sycamore

 

American sycamore

Our American sycamore and her sister across the street

One of the blessings of our new Greenfield house is the tall and majestic American sycamore which gives the front of the house shade and helps cool it in summer. My husband Henry and I have never had such a large domestic tree. New York’s residential trees cannot be too big, and the big trees in Heath were nowhere near the house. They were wild trees in the woods.

We were told that the tree was a sycamore, but the mottled bark made me wonder whether it was a plane tree. It was when we turned to the Internet to find out why Henry was coughing so much when he was out raking leaves (that seemed to have fallen all at once over night) that I found my answer. Our research confirmed that our tree is an American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) and not an Oriental plane tree (Platanus orientalis, or a London plane tree which is a hybrid of the two, probably created in the late seventeenth century.

The American sycamore is native to Eastern North America and is known as the tree with the greatest girth. After 200-300 years it may become hollow and there are tales of colonial families making a temporary shelter of that hollow tree. There is also a tale of 15 horsemen, and their horses, taking shelter in a hollow sycamore, but that sounds more like a campfire story than a piece of recorded history. Sunderland is proud of their giant sycamore tree which has a girth of over 24 feet and was alive when  our American Constitution was signed.

Though these three trees are similar, 100 feet or more, grow rapidly, have mottled bark and ball shaped fruit, there are differences. The American sycamore’s bark is rough and grooved near the base and the bark in the upper limbs and branches is thin and brittle. As the tree grows and branches rapidly gain greater size over the season the thin bark cracks and falls off the tree. Then the gray/white underbark is exposed. The whole London plane tree has mottled bark with an underbark that is a pale yellow or green shade. In both cases the exfoliation is caused by the rapid growth of the limbs and the thinness of the bark. At least that is a theory. It has been pointed out that there are other trees like the shagbark hickory that have exfoliating bark, but they do not grow as quickly, and the bark has more time to grow  with the limbs.  I have always said there are many mysteries in the garden.

Mottled bark of American sycamore

Mottled bark of American sycamore

The ball shaped fruits which do not contain seeds, are called buttonballs and grow singly from a single stem on the American sycamore. Two fruits grow on a single stem on the London plane tree.

Because of these fruits the American sycamore is sometimes called a buttonball tree, and it was under a buttonball that the agreement to form the New York Stock Exchange was signed in 1792. That document is even called the Buttonball Agreement, so the sycamore has its place in our country’s history.

The tree may also have its place in many family histories. The sycamore has such a long life span that a sycamore was often called a ‘bride and groom’ tree when it was planted in front of a newlywed’s house, symbolic of a wish for a long and happy life together.

My further researches explained that the wood of the sycamore has many uses, for flooring, chopping blocks, good furniture and sometimes sliced into veneers that are then glued together forming plywood. It can also serve an even humbler use when it is ground up for particle board. American sycamores grow fast and can be coppiced. That means that when a sycamore is cut down, new branches will grow from the stump. They will grow until they can be cut again. Coppicing is an ancient technique for getting new wood and timber out of the same roots. Birch can be coppiced again and again every four years or so for small firewood, but oak can be coppiced every 50 years for poles and timber.

I learned a lot about sycamores but not what was making my husband cough.

I soldiered on with my research and gave my botanical vocabulary a workout. The large coarse leaves of sycamores are palmately veined which is to say the main veins originate from the leafstalk which is also called the petiole.  In the spring the underside of these leaves area are covered with tiny hairs called pubescence. These tiny hairs begin to be shed in mid season and continue until abscission which is when the leaves lose their grip and fall. It is these hairs that cause irritation when breathed in when raking or doing other pruning or maintenance.

The sycamore also produces seeds that are called achenes because the seed is covered with a hard coating. The winged seeds that maple trees produce (remember sticking them on your nose or twirling them into helicopters when you were a kid) are also achenes. Actually, the maple achenes have their own special name; they are samaras. The sycamore seeds are attached to more little hairs that act as parachutes that will carry at least some of the seeds away on the wind.

I do love learning new words even though I may not use that new word ever again.

The tiny hairs cause irritation. It is not clear to me what it is about the hairs that make them irritants. My research only took me so far.

I am happy with our beautiful tree, and even with the leaves because they provide biomass for my compost. Wearing masks while raking is a small price to pay.

Between the Rows November 7, 2015

Farewell to the End of the Road

 

House at the end of the Road

House at the End of the Road

The time has come to say farewell to the End of the Road. You will notice I am not saying farewell to Heath, because our presence in Heath will not end. When it was clear that it was time to make a move and be closer to our children we realized we did not want to move away from old friends. We expect to make new friends in Greenfield, but we will keep our old friends in Heath and the surrounding towns.

The farewell is to our house where we have poured love and effort. The house holds strong memories beginning with the first night we spent there in November 1979 with our three daughters, Diane, Betsy and (then) Kathy, now all grown up Kate. Though moving day in NYC began very warm, by the time we got to Heath that evening the temperature had gone down to 10 degrees and the wind was blowing. We were late arriving so the plumber who was to meet us there gave up and left. That left us with no heat or water. Nothing to do but laugh and say we were on the frontier now. We built a fire in the stone fireplace with punky wood left in the shed, and pulled up water from the old well.

The house changed over the years as we made improvements but it is the memory of people and events that sheltered in that house that will remain with us. There were graduation parties for Chris from RPI, Betsy and Kate from Mohawk, GCC and later from Clark and Bentley. Henry graduated twice from UMass, first with his BS and then his Masters. The weather provided the drama and entertainment when Kate married Greg amid the roses.

With our first granddaughter Tracy, age 5 at our side, it was in that house that we greeted our second granddaughter Tricia at age one month for her first Heath Fair. Nine years ago we welcomed Tracy’s daughter Bella age three months. We celebrated Boy’s Weeks, and Girl’s Weeks when grandchildren came to visit in the summer.

There were riotous and educational Heath Fairs. At our first Heath Fair I learned that my china bowl of blackberries was disqualified because they needed to be in a standard cardboard container. Agricultural fairs had a mission of teaching farmers how to market their produce. Since then the grandchildren and I have won many prize ribbons.

Of course there were the gardens that changed over time. The first spring in Heath we got Luis Pazmino to come and plow up half an acre. How foolish I was! And determined, never listening to good advice. Needless to say the vegetable garden got smaller and smaller until a bad hip demanded a 12 by 12 foot plot.  Hip repair made the garden grow again until it was again too big.

My only interest in gardens in 1979 was for vegetable gardens and a few romantic antique roses like Passionate Nymph’s Thigh. My original planting of the Passionate Nymph by the front door, and Griffith Buck’s hardy Applejack at the head of our drive ultimately inspired The Rose Walk. And it was our neighbor Sheila who inspired The Annual Rose Viewing. We had invited the Heath Gourmet Club to a summer tea party and to enjoy my half dozen roses. As she polished off her second or third piece of cake Sheila said “You should do this every year.”  And so we did! We held more than 25 Rose Viewings, inviting everyone to our Garden Open Today.

My interests changed when I met our neighbor Elsa Bakalar who introduced me to perennials. I then launched a 90 by 8 foot perennial border. Twice foolish I was. That particular project did not last long. The border was a total loss when we returned from our first year in China in 1990.

It was in 1990 that we planted the first Family Trees, linden trees, for Diane, Betsy, Kate, and granddaughters Tricia and Caitlin. Weather takes a toll and only Diane and Caitlin’s trees remain.

In 1996 our first two grandsons were born, joined by three more boys in 1998. They all, Rory, Anthony, Tynan, Ryan and Drew,  got their trees, ginkgos as a reminder of our second year in Beijing, when we planted the Lawn Beds.

A family grows and changes. A garden grows and changes. Everything changes.

Now we are in the process of changing again. We bought a smaller more manageable house in Greenfield. We changed the colors of some rooms and found new ways of arranging our furnishings.

View from the Heath window

View from the Heath window

Instead of 60 acres with panoramic sunny views and a Rose Walk, Rose Shed Bed, Daylily Bank, Rose Bank, vegetable garden, berry patches, a peony border and two Lawn Beds we have a 66 by 170 foot lot with a more limited view in the shade. We are changing that limited grassy view. I am old enough for shrubs! Many shrubs like hydrangeas, viburnams, winterberries, a dappled willow, clethera, buttonbush, mountain laurel, elderberry, yellow twig dogwood, lilacs, and fothergilla are just the beginnings of this new garden.

View from the Greenfield window

View from the Greenfield
window

I added garden memories and moved a Purington pink rose, a Rangoon  rhododendron, and a nearly dead red tree peony, as well as a few pieces of daylily, aster, Siberian iris and lady’s mantle to the new Greenfield garden.

We are settling into our new life. A new neighbor has already brought me a few small iris divisions, the beginning of a new FriendshipGarden.

We are now full time residents of Greenfield. There will be changes in our routines, enjoyment in new urban pleasures like the Garden Theater and winter dreams of adding to our new garden in the spring.

Purington pink rose

Purington Pink rose