Dear Friend and Gardener

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

Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh

Natural History of Winnie-the-Pooh

Natural History of Winnie-the-Pooh

Winnie-the-Pooh and I did not become acquainted until I was an adult and read what had become literary classics, Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, to my young children. I had known of the books, of course, but only through an Eeyore-ish high school friend who was devoted to all the characters who lived in the 100 Acre Wood. I did not understand his devotion at the time, but as I read these gentle stories of friendship and adventure to my children I gained some understanding of what these characters might have meant to my friend.

Those memories of my friend and of the happy bedtime reading to my children came freshly back to me as I read The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh: A walk through the forest that inspired the Hundred Acre Wood by Kathryn Aalto (Timber Press $24.95). They also reminded me of my own childhood when I had the freedom to wander in the fields and woods of a family farm in Vermont, quite intent on “doing Nothing.”

By the time Winnie-the-Pooh was published in 1926 Alan Alexander Milne had already written 18 plays and three novels. He wrote screen plays, and humorous columns for Punch magazine and was a highly respected writer. It was while working at Punch that he met and became friends with Ernest Howard Shepard who was an illustrator of books, as well as working at Punch. A. A. Milne and E.H. Shepard shared the same sensibilities about nature which came together in a happy partnership when Milne wrote his famous children’s books.

Milne always said his writing was inspired by the life around him and in 1920 his son Christopher Robin was born. Then in 1925 he bought Cotchford Farm, in East Sussex, only an hour’s drive south of London. Milne and his wife Daphne shared their love of the natural world with their son, and watched him play with his stuffed toys – and so the books were born.

The One Hundred Acre Wood is actually inspired by the real AshdownForest. While the Forest has not capitalized on its being a model for Milne’s book, visitors will find a small sign directing them to PoohsticksBridge. Aalto has given us more landmarks to connect Winnie-the-Pooh to the actual landscape of Cotchford Farm and the Forest. She quotes substantially from the Pooh books and takes us right back to the time when we were children, or were reading to our children about the sweet and gentle adventures of Christopher Robin and his friends, Piglet, Owl, Kanga and Roo and Eeyore. I have to say I am moved to go back to the books themselves and savor them anew.

Milne’s prose is an evocative and charming view of childhood, but it is enhanced by E.H. Shepard’s exquisite illustrations. It is hard to imagine the one without the other. Aalto includes many of Shepard’s delightful illustrations.

Still, if we were to travel to Ashdown Forest today we will not spy a young child busy building a house for Eeyore or reading to a fat little bear who has been stuck in a door because he ate too much ‘hunny.’ What Aalto can give us in one section is a beautifully illustrated guide to the flora of the Forest and a geography of the streams and woodland.

The book is well researched and includes many photograph s of the Forest today but it is the charm of Aalto’s prose that carries us into this Enchanted Place. In this book she has given us some biography, geography, and botany, but most of all a trip back in time to a loving childhood.

Flowering Tobacco by

Flowering Tobacco by Richard Pocker

In the Illustrated Guide to Flowering Tobacco for Gardens, Richard Pocker takes us on an enthusiast’s tour of nicotianas. I have never grown nicotianas, and therefore have never gotten an appreciation for the delicious fragrance which makes them such a desirable flower. My friend Wendy sent me a photo of nicotiana taken at twilight when the fragrance begins to fill the summer garden air. Unfortunately, the fragrance cannot be transmitted digitally. I never fully realized that the nicotianas for the flower garden were sometimes the same kinds of tobacco plants that get made into cigarettes.

One variety of nicotiana is called Perfume, but Pocker lists dozens of heirloom varieties as well as nursery hybrids, complete with a photograph, description, information about growing and seed sources, as well as diseases and pests. He also gives a stern warning not to grow nicotianas in the vegetable garden because they are toxic. You may recall that nicotine is a poison sometimes used to kill garden pests.

One variety example  he gives is the heirloom Florida Sumatra which has been grown in Florida as far back as 1884. “Primarily raised as a cigar tobacco, the leaves are large, about 24 inches long by 15 inches wide and fast growing as it matures in 55 days. Topped with a cluster of pink flowers, the leaves emanate a delicious smell, described by some people as spicy. A unique nicotiana that is easy to grow and with abundant sources of seeds. It is a good beginner’s plant.”

Interwoven with the cultural information are brief stories of the part tobacco  played in American history and in the lives of characters like Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King, Jr.

This book is available at Amazon for $39.99 for the paperback, but a Kindle version now only costs $4.99.

Between the Rows  October 24, 2015

 

Apples – The American Fruit

Tim Smith of Apex Orchard with his Fuji apples

Tim Smith of Apex Orchard with his Fuji apples

Ralph Waldo Emerson called apples the American fruit. Certainly the legend of Leominster-born Johnny Appleseed, once an orchardist and later a traveler on the frontier planting apples, is one of our favorite American stories. However, archeologists have found European fossil evidence of apples growing in prehistoric times. Apples had a long history before they ever made it to America. These early apples were actually very tiny crab apples. Evolution carried on its slow work over the eons.

The Greek poet Homer, possibly born around 850 B.C., mentions apples in The Odyssey, and Plutarch wrote about a fictional banquet where the discussion turned to the apple. One of the characters said the apple was a perfect fruit because it was smooth to the touch, had a sweet flavor and fragrance, and appealing to all the senses.

More pragmatic reasons could be named for its perfections. It will grow in cold parts of the world, and it can be cooked, eaten fresh, or stored for long periods of time without any preservation. It can also be dried for later use, and it can be turned into hard cider, or applejack which is a distilled cider, a kind of brandy. It means that apples can be eaten, or drunk, during several months of the year. Of no other fruit is this true.

Long before Emerson came on the scene, cider, and I do mean hard cider, was a common drink for everyone in the country. Although those early settlers had good clean water in this country, they came from places where the water was not good. They knew that many diseases were caused by water even though they did know exactly why or how. In any event, they were cautious about water, and careful in their preservation methods when making hard cider.

The apples that made that cider were not eating apples as we know them. Apples are a fruit that rarely grows true from seed. We all know that Johnny Appleseed went around planting apple seeds, but he was not interested in eating apples. He wanted cider apples, and the best cider is made with many different kinds of apples. Since apples did not grow true from seed a seed planted orchard was by definition an orchard of many different types of apples.

Hard cider and applejack remained important alcoholic drinks right into the 20th century until Prohibition was declared. During those years whole orchards were cut down to prevent the making of cider. By the time Prohibition was repealed people had pretty much forgotten about cider, and the orchards were gone. Happily, today there is a resurgence of interest in hard cider, an interest we can see right in our own neighborhood with the success of farms like West County Cider.

Once in a while a seed apple would turn out to be a good eating apple. One of these is Northern Spy.

Other good eating apples that appeared by chance were then propagated by grafting. Small twigs, called scions, of the desired tree would be grafted onto another tree that grew well in that area. By the 1500s books explaining how to graft apples were written. It is through grafting that today we can even order up an apple tree that bears three different types of apples.

By the turn of the 20th century L.H. Bailey compiled a list of 878 apple varieties in cultivation. There may have been some duplicates in that list, but we all know that that only about a dozen varieties are available in the supermarket today. What happened?

There are many reasons from cities getting bigger, farms being located farther from the cities and the introduction of large controlled cold storage buildings. Since farmers could now transport their apples long distances they began to grow only the most dependable and heavy bearing apples.

Also over the years people’s tastes changed.  People wanted red apples and hence the development of Red Delicious. People wanted ever sweeter apples and so those apples with more complex flavors fell off the list.

In recent years there has been more and more interest in the old varieties. Tower Hill Botanical Garden has an heirloom apple orchard where 119 pre-20th century apple varieties grow. We are also fortunate that our local orchards sell the apples that have long been familiar in the supermarket, but they also grow and sell some of the antique varieties like Gravenstein, Jonathan, Rhode Island Greening, Roxbury Russet, Winesap and others.

Of course, new apples are being developed all the time. Honey Crisp certainly comes to mind and this sweet, crisp apple is much in demand.

Liberty apples

Liberty apples at the End of the Road

We planted the Liberty apple in Heath because it was hybridized for disease resistance and was introduced in 1978.  I didn’t want to have to worry about spraying and we have had good crops with very little work. The apples are clean, beautiful and with good flavor.

I love driving by orchards and this year the harvest is particularly good. I stopped to see Tim Smith at Apex Orchards where his trees are bent with thick set fruit. Even my Liberty tree is more heavily laden than usual. Pine Hill Orchard and Clarkdale are enjoying a similar happy harvest this year.

When I was growing up my father ended every dinner with an apple. I continue the tradition of eating a lot of apples over the course of the year, but I confess a number of them will be eaten in apple pan dowdy (makes your eyes light up and your stomach say howdy), apple crisp, apple pie and apple cake. Yes, indeed. The apple is a versatile fruit.

Between the Rows    October  17, 2015

Watch for CIDER DAYS November 7 & 8 at the various orchards and venues.

 

Carefree Peonies – Lush Glamour

peonies

So many peonies – this herbaceous pink peony is only one of the three dozen in my Heath garden

Herbaceous peonies are the most glamorous flowers in my garden, so lush and big, and pink, of course. I have planted mostly late varieties so that they will still have some bloom when the roses begin to bloom. That way, if for any reason, the roses are not doing what I want them to be doing on the last Sunday in June, the peonies will delight visitors who have come to the Annual Rose Viewing.

You might have a different sort of reason for wanting herbaceous peonies to bloom in an earlier season, or you might want to have early, mid and late season varieties for a long period of that lush bloom. Whatever it is that you want you will have many choices of flower color and form.

Peonies are also among the most carefree flowers to have in a garden. They have no serious pests or diseases. Once planted they will be happy for years and even decades. Some happy peonies have been found growing in a garden neglected for a generation. All they need is slightly acidic, humusy soil and a place in the sun. The only tricky part is that they must planted properly, with the root only an inch or two below soil level. If they are planted too deeply they will not bloom. This is not fatal, it just means you will have to dig them up sometime in the future and replant them.

Because peonies are so long lived it is wise to plant them at least two feet apart and at least that far from a wall or any other plants. A mature peony can have a three foot diameter and needs room to show off to best advantage.

Peonies have large brittle roots and fall is the best and official time for planting, or dividing and replanting them. Nowadays, you will often find a few potted peonies at nurseries in the spring, but autumn planting gives the feeder roots time to develop and be stronger in the spring. Even so, it may take a year or even two before your peony blooms.

I used to think peonies were pink or white and all had the same form. I was wrong. To begin with there are single peonies with a single ring of petals around a (usually) golden center. White Wings and Coral’n Gold are examples. The semi-double form comes next with two or three layers of petals like Coral Charm.

Japanese form peonies like Mikado have a large central cluster of stamens. Sometimes they are called Imperial peonies. Anemone peonies are similar to Japanese, but the central cluster has evolved into petaloids, larger than the stamens. Bowl of Beauty has a large pink blossom (up to 12 inches in diameter) around a cluster of lemon yellow petaloids.

Peony 'Kansas'

Peony ‘Kansas’

Double peonies have so many petals that the stamens are not visible at all. Kansas is a deep red double blooming in early midseason. In 1957 it was awarded a Gold Medal by the American Peony Society. Alas, no fragrance.

The bomb form is similar to the double, but the center segment of petals form more of a round ball set on the surrounding petals. Charlie’s White is very tall, up to 48 inches, pure white and with good fragrance. It is also an excellent cut flower and can even be dried.

I am not moving any peonies this year so I do not have to do any digging up, dividing or replanting. However, I am a little late with my cutting back. It is time to cut back all the stalks to the ground, weed, and possibly add a little compost or mulch.

Tree Peonies

Guan Yin Mian tree peony

Guan Yin Mian tree peony

I also have tree peonies and these do not get cut back at all. They will not really grow into trees, but they bloom on sturdy branches that remain all year. A mature tree peony can produce many blossoms over their season. The main difference in their care is that tree peonies do need to be planted more deeply, about four inches, again in slightly acidic, humusy soil in a sunny location.

I love the tree peonies because they are the size of a small shrub and are extremely hardy even though the large blossoms appear so delicate. I confess I do pray for sun while they are in bloom because a strong spring rain will wash away those flowers. Guan Yin Mian which refers to the goddess of compassion is my best tree peony with all the delicacy and strength that the goddess embodies.

The newest peony in the nurseries is the Itoh peony. They are so named after Toichi Itoh who was the first hybridizer to successfully cross a tree peony with an herbaceous peony in 1940. Originally these were very expensive, but prices have come down. These are also known as intersectional peonies.

The advantage to the Itoh peony is that they have a more bushy appearance and will produce dozens of blooms over a long season once established. There are only a few Itoh peonies on the market compared to the scores of herbaceous peonies, but they are very beautiful. Quite a number are in shades of yellow which is an unusual color for   a peony. I don’t know who it is named for but there is a lovely double pink Itoh named Hillary whose petals will fade to cream

I have a border devoted to peonies in the HeathGarden but they can be used on a more individual scheme throughout a garden. I am now looking for good locations for peonies in the new Greenfield garden. There is still time to do some planting.

Between the Rows  October 3, 2015