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Underutilized Trees and Shrubs

Jay Vinskey, Master Gardener

Jay Vinskey, Master Gardener

Jay Vinskey gave a useful workshop on Underutilized Trees and Shrubs at the WMMGA Spring Garden Symposium last weekend. I attended because I may not be quite finished choosing shrubs for our new Greenfield garden and I was looking for more suggestions. Small trees and shrubs are the elements I am counting on to make this a sustainable, low maintenance garden.

Vinskey’s list included trees like paperbark maple, tupelo, ironwood, redbud, stewartia, and pagoda dogwood. His shrub list included beautyberry, Carolina allspice, fringe tree, witch hazel, and redvein enkianthus. Vinskey chose these because of their fine attributes of bark, blossom and autumn color or winter interest. Happily for me I had already planted some of his suggestions.

It is important to know that Vinskey chose plants that were hardy in our region. The USDA lists Greenfield as zone 5b which means plants will survive winter temperatures as low as -15 to -10.  Nowadays I have to wonder whether we might actually be in zone 6a which is -10 to -5 and I would be willing to take a gamble on a slightly more tender plant like stewartia.

It is also important to know how much shade or sun a plant needs to thrive. However, I also have to take into account that my garden is very wet at least during late winter and early spring, even when we are having a drought. While listening to Vinskey I was happy that I had already planted pagoda dogwood and Carolina allspice in my garden. The pagoda dogwood is a small tree with a very horizontal arrangement of branches. The flowers are small and not particularly notable, but the sculptural shape of the tree is the delight. I saw a beautiful specimen in Minneapolis last summer; the tree’s gardener told me it did require some regular pruning to keep that clean shape at its best.

Calycanthus or Carolina allspice is a shrub that can take a fair amount of shade and produces dramatic dark red blossoms from May into July. And, of course, there is the sweet fragrance.

Elderberry bush

Elderberry bush

In addition I’ve planted buttonbush, elderberry, spicebush and winterberry shrubs, which I personally think of as underutilized. Perhaps some gardeners would consider them too wild for a cultivated garden.

My perennial list includes joe pye weed, boneset, culver’s root, Echinacea, American burnet, turtlehead, bee balm, Siberian irises Japanese primroses, and bog rosemary which is a water tolerant ground cover. You can see that in a sense I have been cultivating a wetland garden. These plants don’t need to be in wet ground all the time, but they thrive when the soil is moist, or water is puddling around their feet. Some are familiar to flower gardeners, but others are more unusual although those who love native flowers may find them familiar.

Monarda or bee balm

Monarda or bee balm with bee

The fact that I have so many native plants in my garden is because I wanted plants attractive to bees and other pollinators including butterflies. Having a pollinator garden is one of my goals. Because honeybees and other pollinators are under so much attack by the use, and often overuse, of herbicides and pesticides I want to play my part in supporting these vital creatures. Without pollinators many of our vegetables and fruits would no longer exist.

Bee Spaces Pollinator Garden Award

This year there will be a special opportunity and event at the Langstroth Bee Festival on Saturday, June 3. The Second Congregational Church, which this year is celebrating its 200th anniversary, has cooperated with the Franklin County Beekeepers Association for several years creating a bee festival that will entertain and educate children, and all the rest of us too, about honey bees and the 300 odd other native bees that work hard to make sure we have good vegetables and fruits to eat.

Greenfield has a very special connection to honeybees because the Reverend Lorenzo Langstroth served as the Second Congregational Church’s minister from 1840-1848. He is one of the people who recognized ‘bee space’, the specific distance that honeybees leave between their honeycombs so that they could fill, or empty them. He also invented the modern wooden beehive that allows for ‘bee space’ between the removable frames.

This year, in honor of the church’s anniversary, special celebratory events are scheduled for the Bee Festival. Kim Flottam, editor in chief of Bee Culture Magazine and author of several books on beekeeping, will be the main speaker.

For those who do not keep bees, but welcome bees to their gardens the Second Congregational Church and the Franklin County Beekeeping Association will present awards to home gardens, farms, public or community gardens or businesses that provide some space for bees. Former Governor Deval Patrick will be on hand to present the awards. The award itself is a beautiful pottery plaque designed and made by the well known potter Molly Cantor. It is designed to be placed on a house or business, “designating you as a pollinator friendly garden of distinction.”

Rudbeckia is another good bee plant

Rudbeckia, black eyed susans are another good bee plant

Those who are interested in this award should fill out an application. Requirements are that the garden be in Franklin County, and that no pesticides or herbicides can be used anywhere on the property. For more information check out the Bee Spaces pages on Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram.

This is the kick off of the award, so if you think your garden might need a little updating to be eligible remember that there is always next year, and the Second Annual Bee Spaces Award.

Between the Rows   March 25, 2017

Toxics Action Conference in Boston – Water and More

Kandi Mossett

Kandi Mossett

Water is life! That is the cry that was repeated when Kandi Mossett finished her keynote address at the Local Environmental Action Conference last Sunday. Mossett, of Mandan, Hidsata and Arikara tribal heritage, is a leading voice in the fight to the impacts that environmental injustice are having on indigenous communities across our country.

We all know about the stand taken at Standing Rock in North Dakota to keep an oil pipeline from crossing sacred lands and under the lake that supplies water to the tribe, threatening the safety of that water supply. The protest has gotten a lot of press over the past months, but Mossett filled us in on the terrifying context and damage done to land and water over past years.

Oil wells and fracking have been going on for years. One result is that contaminated fracking water has been trucked to manmade ponds that are not reliable and have leaks. These spills kill plants and soil. One farmer’s whole field was destroyed. The river where people fished turned blue, signifying a deoxygenating algae bloom that killed the fish. Mossett showed us a photo of 18 inch ‘frack sox’ filter. These are radioactive and not disposed of properly, and sometimes are picked up by children. Babies are affected by the hydrogen sulphide poisonous gas.

The idea that the Standing Rock protest is just about the building of a pipeline does not begin to tell the story of lands taken, soil and water already contaminated, and health consequences of fracking. Mossett herself is a cancer survivor.

As we all know, the protest has not prevented the pipeline. Mossett tell all who have ever fought for justice, “You’re not guaranteed change when you make your voice heard against injustice; but you are guaranteed to fail if you choose to remain silent.”

Mossett continues to fight for justice for indigenous people and you can find more information at the Indigenous Environmental Network http://indigenousrising.org/KandiMossett.

In the afternoon Lois Gibbs was the keynote speaker. In 1978 she founded the Love Canal Homeowners Associate. Happily, more than half of the audience understood instantly what that meant.

When Gibbs, who had a toddler son, noticed that many children in the neighborhood were becoming ill, she investigated and found that the school and the neighborhood were built on a toxic landfill. She and other parents attended town committee meetings and asked them to do something, confident that this information would move them to action. But nothing happened she said. No action was taken.

She went to the town again, but their decision was based on a cost/benefit analysis of the neighborhood and the earnings of the 100 or so families living there. Earnings of men and their sons were calculated over the years, but women and daughters were not considered to have any earnings and were worth nothing. “Can you imagine? The women were worth nothing?” Gibbs said to her audience.

Gibbs’ group then turned to science and created a survey that showed that 56% of the children had birth defects, counted the number of illnesses and miscarriages. Their study was dismissed as ‘useless housewife data by people who have a vested interest.’ The town finally did their own study and got the same information but declared that this was simply a random cluster of genetically defective people.

Then Gibbs said they misbehaved. They got town officials to come to a meeting at her house for more discussion and served cookies and coffee. Then we told them they could not leave until they promised to do something to remove all the families and give them new homes. “We held them hostage.” The men made phone calls, one of which brought a sharp shooter to keep watch through the window. After 5 hours they said they would work something out. But Gibbs and her group told them they if they did not have a plan in place by Wednesday at noon, three days hence, they would be very sorry.

The media was told of the deadline and there was great tension, but exactly at noon on Wednesday it was agreed. By a month later many of the families had been evactuated and the rest followed soon after.

Gibbs’ toddler daughter who was conceived and born while they lived at LoveCanal had been extremely ill through all this, but she said her daughter and her son were fully recovered after two years living elsewhere. Her daughter has even given her three healthy grandchildren.

Gibbs’ advice was that people who want to bring about change need science and the law. She said to fight politically, never violently and always to stand together.

I did not to attend the workshop about Flint Water because we are fortunate in Greenfield to have good clean drinking water, and a town website with water and sewer divisions. Water testing results are posted there.

I did attend Dirty Water: Increasing Community Capacity in the Face of Drinking Water Contamination with Emerging Chemicals. The emerging chemicals we focused on were polyflourinated water contaminants like PFCs, PFAS, PFOA, etc. These are chemicals that can spread through the soil and get into water systems from factories. Testing is difficult and expensive, they cannot be boiled away from drinking water like bacteria, and they can be absorbed through your skin from upholstery or carpeting materials, and by bathing or taking a hot shower which will allow you to inhale the chemical. The workshop did not solve any problems, but pointed out the problems that need solving.

Water is Life! We must guard and protect our nation’s water supply. Toxic Actions and Massachusetts Climate Action Network hosted this excellent conference.

Between the Rows  March 11, 2017

Here’s What Permaculture Looks Like

Bioshelter

Nancee Bershof’s Bioshelter in the center of her permaculture garden

Bill Mollison, considered the Father of Permaculture, said it is “. . . the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.”

Nancee Bershof became interested in permaculture after her husband’s death, and her departure from medicine. She was looking for new interests and permaculture fascinated her. She took a course that led her down a new road, supplying food, and non-material needs like community and friendship.

Nancy Bershof

Nancee Bershof

She moved to a new house and property eight years ago, setting about creating a permaculture landscape. Using  Mollison’s description she has created gardens that do provide food, energy, shelter and some non-tangible benefits as well. Of course, starting any new garden does not happen in one year

The house sits fairly close to the road, so most of the acre of her property lies in back of the house where Bershof began my tour by showing me around the personal ornamental garden with its shady covered deck, and a sunny patio ringed by more shade. This garden had changed radically two days earlier when a large limb of an old and very tall willow came down during the night. While Bershof told me that she planned to leave this arching limb as a work of art, it was clear that it changed the garden. Where there had been shade there was now bright sun.

We then walked through the gate into what was a very different sunny garden that gave me my first real understanding of that a permaculture garden looks like. Bershof said  that she did not create this alone. Dave Jacke, author of EdibleForestGardens, created a site plan. “That plan got me started, but not everything happened as planned.” That sounded right to me. I have never known a plan that was carried out in every detail.

She also said “Esthetics are important to me. What looks good, feels good. I wanted it to be lovely.”

The view from the gate was not that of manicured borders, but it was lovely. There was a multiplicity of garden beds, but also a greenhouse in the center of the space. Bershof began by walking me through the gardens, but made me wait for a tour of the Bioshelter.

An important element of permaculture is the planting of perennial crops. It is easy to name off raspberries, blueberries, peaches and other fruit bearing shrubs and trees, as well as many herbs that we grow in our gardens. It is not so easy to come up with perennial vegetables. And yet they exist.

Perennial sea kale

Perennial sea kale

Bershof pointed out the sea kale, perennial arugula, skirrit, ground spinach and Turkish rocket. We nibbled as we went along and there was nothing weird tasting that would deter most people from eating them.

Tom Sullivan whose business is Pollinators Welcome helped Bershof lay out quadrants of pollinator beds that would attract bees and other pollinators to the garden. These beds teach two lessons. Pollinator beds need to have masses of any particular pollinator plant to make them easier for pollinators to find, and they need different varieties of plants to provide food all season long. Many of these plants, like bee balm, are also native to our area.

Companion planting of asparagus, basil and tomatoes

Companion planting of asparagus, basil and tomatoes

We walked past a perennial asparagus bed that was interplanted with annual tomatoes and basil. Bershof explained that this was a good companion planting, much like the Three Sisters garden she grows composed of corn, beans and squash. Unfortunately, she was battling the moles who were eating her corn roots, killing them and leaving the bean vines no way of climbing.

From this garden I could see a large planting of Jerusalem artichokes, and fruit trees including peaches, persimmons and paw paws. We were also at the chicken yard where eight hens are currently penned although they are free range when garden crops are not at risk.

The chicken house is a part of the Bioshelter, which is much more than a greenhouse. Keith Salzburg of Regenerative Design designed the building which includes the large greenhouse. Right now raised beds hold cucumbers and a tall fig tree. Covered bins dug into the ground contain worm farms that handle kitchen scraps. There are also the beginnings of a hydroponic project.

The long interior wall of the greenhouse is lined with black barrels filled with water that heats up when the sun is shining and then moderates temperatures when outside temperatures fall.

The other side of that wall is the tool shed where many well kept tools are hung. The third and final section of the bioshelter is the hen house.

There is separate space for feed. The rest of the space has egg boxes, a ramp to the outdoors and an automatic chicken door that opens at 6 am and closes at 9 pm after the chickens have tucked themselves in for the night. Bershof was especially pleased with this particular labor saver.

The bioshelter is a part of Bershof’s goal to use less water, less energy and have a smaller carbon footprint.

As we concluded my tour Bershof showed me what she calls the community garden, where friends have their own plots. “Right from the start, one of my goals was to share this site. I didn’t want to garden alone, but to have space where we could work together.” I think that counts as the important non-material need for sharing and friendship.

Between the Rows    July 11, 2016

I Went Shopping for Spice Bush for the Swallowtail Butterfly

Spicebush

Spice Bush, Lindera Benzoin

It’s spring and I went shopping  for Spice Bush. Yesterday, at the Hadley Garden Center I found a Spice Bush with bursting green buds. This Spice Bush, Lindera benzoin, is hardy, takes shade, and gets big, up to 12 feet tall and just as wide.  I will plant it next to the fence which a relatively dry spot, but spice bush can also tolerates some wet. One special reason for planting spice bush is that it attracts Spice Bush Swallowtail butterflies. Spice Bush Swallowtail butterflies lay their eggs on  host plants like the Spice Bush. This is so when the eggs hatch and the caterpillars are born their meals are waiting for them.  Any butterfly garden must include host plants that will feed the particular caterpillar as well as nectar plants.

A little botanical history. Carl Peter Thunberg (1743-1828) honored Johan Linder (1676-1724) by naming the Lindera genus in his honor. As you might imagine the genus Thunbergia which includes Thunbergia alata, the  black eyed susan vine. is name for CP Thunberg

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

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

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.

Rain Management with Hugelkultur

 

hugelkultur trench

Hugelkultur trench

Learning how to harvest rain and manage water use is an urgent topic in California where I have been visiting, but it is a big topic for all of us. It is important for us all to manage our use of that precious resource – water. My husband Henry and I have been visiting friends. We have also been visiting wonderful gardens like the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanical Garden, and the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens with garden writers from all over the country. It was at the Arboretum that I saw the ongoing installation of the Crescent Farm project and saw examples of hugelkultur, a technique that helps to harvest and manage rainfall. It also builds good soil and sequesters carbon.

The first thing I noticed was a deep and wide trench that had been filled up with sections of large logs with smaller spaces filled with smaller branches. The idea was to make this log filled trench stable so that if you walked on it the logs would not shift and cause a fall. The trench was strategically sited to capture the most rainfall and run-off.  In California where rains are infrequent (even when there is not a serious drought) run-off and flooding are the problems that come with the heavy rains. The trench will capture the water, but it is the wood logs and branches that will absorb the water. It then takes a long time for the logs to dry out, enough time for the useful bacteria and fungi to grow and benefit the soil.

Example of Hugelkultur

Hugelkultur example

I also saw large log sections circling a tree. Inside the circle cardboard sheets had been laid down, watered, and then covered with strips of bark to provide a mulch. I am familiar with this technique and have been using it in my new garden. I was not as familiar with the idea of providing ‘nurse’ logs to help my garden grow. The purpose of the encircling log lengths was twofold. First, to keep people from walking near the tree and causing compaction of the soil, and second, providing a medium for the growth of more helpful bacteria and fungi. The soil is a living thing; the nurse logs, and the logs in the hugelkulture trench are ways of increasing the beneficial forms of life in the soil.

I interviewed the learned horticulturist John Latsko about the making of the hugelkulture. “The whole idea is to keep the water on site in the soil, and even in the aquifer. In a really heavy rain the water may fill the trench and make the wood float, but it will not overflow,” he said. “What we want to do is slow the movement of water, spread the water, and save the water. Slow, spread and save.”

John Latsko and Yara Herrarte

John Latsko and Yara Herrarte

He also pointed out that what looked like a berm at the edge of one of the large planting beds was a different form of hugelkulture. In this instance they had piled up logs and then covered them with soil to make a type of raised bed. “The covered bed absorbs moisture in the air and wicks it into the wood. We planted pumpkins on this bed and without any irrigation or fertilization at all we harvested a lot of pumpkins.”

I also noticed a few small trenches cut into the planting beds at a slight angle. They were going to be filled with logs, again the purpose was to capture runoff. I was told that the logs and branches used in hugelkulture can be from any kind of tree. Trees like cedar and black walnut have a reputation for being harmful in the soil and that they will kill crops planted in that soil. While it is true that some woods have volatile oils that could be harmful, they dissipate within a year and are no long a threat. All logs, hardwoods and softwoods, will breakdown and provide a source of nutrients for the plants over a long period of time. The raised beds will slowly lower themselves as the logs decompose, but they can always be added to.

The point was made that by burying these logs the gardener is also sequestering carbon Latsko told me that the soil in this garden had been heavy clay, but over the two years that the garden had been in process the soil had improved considerably.” He was aided by Yara Herrarte, a young college student who was also working in the garden as an interpretive horticulturist. That day she was getting ready to teach a workshop on lasagna gardening, which I have often mentioned here. She is preparing for her teacher certification. Her goal is to teach younger children, and to show them “that you can discover so much in the garden.”

I can tell you that I was learning a lot on this 2.2 acre garden. While the goal of the hugelkultur beds and trenches at Crescent Farm is to slow, spread and save water on site, I have a different problem. My garden site is very wet, at least seasonally. My neighbors’ garden are also wet, so I think this is an ongoing situation. I have already built some slightly raised planting beds with cardboard, compost and loam, but hugelkulture can ameliorate my problems with water too. I can dig a huglekultur trench to capture water so that I do not have standing water for as long a time, and I can build raised hugelkultur beds that will not need irrigation. Whether a trench or a raised bed the hugelkultur technique will be improving my soil. And my soil definitely needs improvement!

Between the Rows   September 26, 2015

Drainage Problems and Happy Irises

The day after we planted all our water tolerant shrubs Greenfield was inundated by torrential rains. I was told over three inches of rain fell the afternoon and evening of July 7. We knew that our Greenfield house had a wet backyard and after planting nine shrubs we were fully aware of the heavy clay soil. However we did not expect several inches of standing water in the back half of the yard.

Fortunately, our excellent plumber, Scott Zilinski, helped us out by helping to design and dig a drainage trench near the old sheds. The yard looks flat, but in fact there are subtle dips and hollows which were identifiable by looking at the worst areas of wet. The drainage trench may be extended in the corner next to our neighbor’s driveway.

It was also clear to see that the area next to the northern fence was equally under water. We are now considering the possibility of a rain garden in that area to catch heavy rainfall, and rain runoff. We now realize that our lot is slightly lower than the two lots next to us, and that those two pieces of property have a lot of paving causing some runoff onto our lot.

It was while attending events and programs at the Conway School of Design that I first learned about the importance of permeable surfaces that would allow rain to be absorbed and kept on site. It was also about that time that our son in Cambridge, Massachusetts told us that the city had regulations about how much of a lot could be covered, and how much had to be given to permeable surfaces. Cambridge’s concern was the capacity of their storm sewers. I now have a whole new appreciation of that concern and the importance of permeable surfaces.

Carrying out our Home Outside design plan has come to a brief halt while we consider various options to improving our drainage.

One new drainage idea surfaced when I joined a Greenfield Garden Club tour of Jono Neiger’s forest garden. Neiger is one of the founders of the Regenerative Design Group in Greenfield. Their mission is not only to create sustainable landscapes, but to make them better, to regenerate them. One of the topics that came up as we walked through the different sections of Neiger’s garden was hugelkulture (hoo-gel culture) which makes use of logs and woodland debris to improve the soil. There are many aspects of hugelkuture but one in particular caught my attention.

When I explained our situation to Neiger he said one could dig a trench, two feet wide and three feet deep and then fill it with logs and other compostable debris, sod and leaves and such like and top it with a layer of soil. The wood will slowly compost, adding nutrients and soaking up water, improving the soil. Not a quick fix, but fascinating nonetheless. Our soil could use improvement.

Beardless Irises

Beardless Irises

While we think about next steps I have been reading Beardless Irises: A Plant for Every Garden Situation by Keven C. Vaughn and published by Schiffer. My own experience with beardless irises is with Siberian irises which are one of the most beautiful and easy care flowers in the world, and Japanese irises which often have a flatter flower and are truly spectacular. I never knew that beardless irises ranged from the sweet and petite, to the tall and stunning spurias.

I never knew anything about Pacific coast native irises which we cannot really grow in our area because of the winters, but amazingly Louisiana irises, and spuria irises are definite possibilities. I will never take the iris family for granted again.

We have purple and white Siberian irises in Heath and I always planned to bring some of them down to Greenfield. They are not only beautiful they don’t mind being wet. In fact, one gorgeous clump of deep purple/blue Siberians somehow jumped into a swale in our field where they have lived very happily for several years.

A few years ago I bought a beautiful white Japanese iris from Andrew Wheeler at Foxbrook Iris Farm in Colrain. He told me that Japanese iris didn’t need to be growing in a wet site, but they did need to be planted where they could be watered regularly. I planted it in front of the house where there is excellent drainage, and where I do keep it watered, but I am hoping that it will be even happier when it is moved to Greenfield.

Spurias love water so much that Vaughn suggests taking a plastic kiddie pool, with holes cut in the bottom, and sinking it into the ground, then filling it with good soil for a planting site. Then that area can be watered heavily without causing a problem for surrounding plants which might not need quite so much water. Spurias are tall ranging from three to five feet although we are warned that in our colder climate they may be slightly shorter. In any event they promise to be a dramatic planting, the clump growing larger every year, but not demanding to be divided.

Vaughn is a scholar, hybridizer and has a PhD in plant genetics. He gives us common gardeners the information about whether a particular type of iris will thrive in our climate, as well as the usual cultural info about soil, fertilizer and sun requirements, but the book is also rich in the stories of hybridizers and their work. If you like to know how a stunning plant came to be, or even how to create your own hybrids, this is the book for you. The many beautiful color photographs showing the full range of color have inspired me. Expect more beardless irises in my garden.

Between the Rows   July 25, 2015

If you want to play around with your own garden designs on the free Home Outside Palette app for smart phones and tablets click here.