End of Year Reflections



Eryngium

This was a good gardening year for me. Although we had some rainy times, and some hot, dry times, overall the weather was conducive to good plant growth. As usual, I tried a number of new things. Here are some of the things I tried this year.

 

In the vegetable garden I grew a new potato variety that I liked a lot called “Magic Molly”. It is sold by Fedco Seed Coop as a fingerling, but if you let them keep growing, the potatoes get to be quite large. I love the color: a purple so deep it is almost black when picked. It is dark colored inside and out, and keeps its color quite well when cooked, so it is good looking in a stew. Some purple potatoes turn gray when cooked, which is less appealing.

 

I tried a new (to me) tomato this year, a hybrid from Burpee Seed Company called Brandy Boy. I met the CEO of Burpee, George Ball, at the Chelsea Flower Show in London. He told me that Brandy Boy was earlier than Brandywine, my favorite heirloom tomato, and that it had disease resistance that heirlooms don’t have. He said that the flavor was comparable to Brandywine, and I agree. Very tasty.

 

In order to get Brandy Boy this year I had to buy plants from Burpee – I only learned about it in late May, much too late to start plants from seed. But I’m glad I did, it gave me a chance to try it this year. Next year I will plant seeds indoors in April, which is much more economical. I checked my local nurseries for plants last May, but no one had any.

 

Over the years my vegetable garden has gotten shadier and shadier. Now I don’t get direct sun until mid-morning, and it gets behind trees in late afternoon. So I get about 6 hours of prime sun, with sun filtered through trees at other times. I compared notes with other growers who get bigger yields, and know that sun is a major factor. I would cut down the offending trees, but most are on my neighbors’ property. Sigh.

 

I planted strawberries last summer, the first time in years. Strawberries are short-lived perennial plants – three years is about all one generally gets from a planting. The first year the plants will bloom, but growers advise picking off all the blossoms so that the roots and plants will develop better. I did that, and anticipate a good crop next June.

 

Most strawberries are sensitive to length of day, and produce heavy crops only in June. But now there are day-neutral plants, and everbearing plants that will produce some berries all summer and into the fall. This time I chose a June-bearing variety as there is a new insect pest, the spotted-winged drosophila that is mostly present late in the season. Hopefully this fruit fly won’t arrive until my crop has finished producing.

 

Angelica

In the flower garden I tried a new biennial, angelica (Angelica archangelica) and was delighted with it. This is a tall plant that produces globes of deep purple florets in globes about two to three inches across. Not only is it gorgeous, it attracts bees like crazy.

 

Like all biennials, angelica only blooms at the end of its second year of growth, then dies. I planted some of the seeds this year, but if I want it to flower next year I will have to buy another plant, and this one cost even more than a perennial flower. That leads me to believe it is not an easy flower to grow.

 

I was delighted to see that I finally have the proper soil for my sea holly, also called Eryngium. Sea holly has wonderful bluish flowers with spiky appendages around the globe-shaped blossoms that resemble globe thistle.

 

I have tried numerous times to get the proper soil to accommodate its needs, and finally got it to over winter and flower in year two. It hates good rich soil, and will only overwinter in sandy, nutrient-poor soil. So I created a spot for it by digging up some driveway soil and replacing my good soil. Bingo. It worked.

 

This was a great year for daylilies, which continued to bloom through much of September, even varieties that are normally finished in mid-August. I have no idea why they bloomed for such a long period, but enjoyed the show. You may not think of daylilies as cut flowers, but a scape (stem) cut with multiple buds will continue to open the buds and bloom, day after day. Just place the vase where it gets some good direct sun each day.

 

Catalpa

I planted 2 woody plants this summer: a catalpa tree and a shrub called button bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis).  The catalpa will be a large specimen tree on a section of lawn that I always left for badminton. Given how little I play, I gave the lawn over to a magnificent flowering tree. It is 10 feet tall, and will get to be 40 or so, blooming in late June and into July. It’s fragrant, too.

 

Button bush, a native plant, likes moist soil and sun to part shade. I have plenty of moist soil, so planted one near my brook. It produces neat, round white blossoms in early summer.

 

I wish you all a great gardening year for 2018. May your veggies produce well, your flowers surprise you, and the Japanese beetles fly past your roses and land next door.

 

Henry is a UNH Master Gardener and the author of 4 gardening books. His website is www.Gardening-Guy.com. Henry blogs at www.dailyuv.com.

Paperwhites and Amaryllis: Start Some for Easy Blossoms Indoors



The winter months can be a bit depressing for me. As a gardener there is very little to do, and my supply of colorful flowers indoors is limited. I combat this by buying cut flowers, and better yet, getting flowers to bloom in pots or dishes for me. Two of my favorites are paperwhites and amaryllis. I have both blooming right now, and will continue to start more.

 

Paperwhite blossoms look good for 2 weeks or more

Paperwhites are in the daffodil family in the genus Narcissus. There are many named cultivars, but most purveyors of the bulbs do not tell you their names. Commonly sold in grocery stores and garden centers, paperwhites are easy cultivate and quick to bloom. Some varieties will bloom in a couple of weeks, others take up to a month.

 

To get your paperwhites to bloom, all you need is a sunny windowsill, a dish or bowl that will hold water, and some small stones. Garden centers sell bags of attractive pebbles or chips of white marble that is suitable, or you can go out to your driveway and pick up stones.

 

Start by rinsing off the pebbles and placing them in a wide, low bowl. Then arrange your paperwhites so that the fat end of each bulb is nestled into the stones and surrounded by them. Add enough water so that it just “kisses” the bottom of the bulbs. You don’t want the bulb sitting in water – the bulbs can rot if they do.

 

Start paperwhites in a bowl with gravel and water

I like to select paperwhites from the bin that have green sprouts already emerging at the time of purchase. They will bloom sooner than those that are entirely dormant at the time of purchase. If you buy them in a mesh bag, look at the bulbs carefully to make sure they are not dried out or are mushy when you squeeze them.

 

Paperwhites have a distinctive fragrance which can be quite strong. I love the sweet scent, but not everyone does. At this time of year any flower scent is a blessing, as far as I am concerned. The odor can often be smelled from quite a distance. One variety that does not have an odor is a bright yellow one called ‘Grand Soleil d’Or’.

 

Unlike the ordinary daffodils that I pot up in soil each fall and force to bloom indoors in the spring, paperwhites cannot be successfully planted outdoors, even if you kept them watered and green until the ground thaws. They are a Mediterranean species, and will not survive our winters. I don’t believe they will bloom again next year indoors, either. But that means there is one less chore to do.

 

Amaryllis

Amaryllis is another easy, bright and wonderful flower that you can plant at this time of year for indoor blooms. The bulbs are available in grocery stores, Big Box stores and garden centers. Some come already planted in pots, but most come with a bag of planting soil, a pot, and a bulb – so some assembly is required.

 

The flowers of amaryllis bloom on a 16-inch stem and are shaped like Oriental or Asiatic lilies. The come in red, white, pink and striped varieties. None are particularly fragrant. As with most things, you get what you pay for. If you get the least expensive, smallest bulbs you will get one stem with 4 blossoms on a single stem. If you buy a bigger bulb, you will probably get 2 flower stems, one growing after the first has finished blooming. I’ve even heard of bulbs that gave 3 flower stems, but never had one.

 

If you are planting your amaryllis yourself, be sure that this big bulb is not buried up to its neck as that can encourage rot. Plant so that between a third and a half of the bulb is in the soil mix, not more.

 

If the soil mix comes in a plastic bag and is very dry, as it often is, moisten it well before you plant, but don’t get it soggy. Then keep an eye on it. Don’t let the soil mix get overly dry, especially as the flower buds are developing.

 

After blooming (and sometimes before), amaryllis will grow nice green, glossy leaves. And they can be made to re-bloom. If you keep them watered and in a sunny window until summer, you can put them outside and let them re-charge their batteries. Then, in the fall, put the amaryllis, pot and all, into a paper bag and place in a cool, dark place for a month to six weeks. Then bring it up in mid-November and begin watering. It should soon produce a flower stem.

 

In her book, ‘Making Things Grow: A Practical Guide for the Indoor Gardener’ the late garden writer Thalassa Cruso wrote that amaryllis hate to have their roots disturbed. I trust her advice and recommend any of her books. The one mentioned above really will help turn “Houseplant Killers” into “Green Thumb Mavens”. It is readily available at used book stores.

 

So get some paperwhites or amaryllis or both, and pot them up. Give them to friends and relatives for the holidays. You really can’t go wrong.

 

Henry is the author of 4 gardening books. His website is www.Gardening-Guy.com. Read his blog at https://dailyuv.com/gardeningguy.

 

Winter Pruning



This is a time of year when little is happening in the garden. Weeds either have been pulled, or won’t be – until next spring. I’ve cut back most flowers, both perennial and annual. The ground is starting to freeze and we’ve had some snow. It’s a good time to be lazy. But … I don’t like to be lazy.

 

So what can a gardener do? Prune. Trees and shrubs are dormant now, and it is fine to do some pruning. You can see the structure of deciduous woody plants easily now, as their leaves have dropped.

 

Before you start hacking away, be advised that shrubs that bloom in spring or early summer already have their flower buds ready and waiting for spring. So if you prune heavily, you will lose blossoms. On the other hand, if you have the time now and the plants need work, get to work.

 

In fact, most shrubs and fruit trees have both their leaf and flower buds. A few exceptions exist, of course: hydrangeas, summer sweet clethra, seven-sons flower tree, witchhazel and franklinia come to mind as woody plants that set their blossom buds on new wood in the spring for summer or fall blooming.

 

Shoots develop on a Lilac pruned hard a few years ago

On a recent day I went out to do some radical pruning. I have a white lilac that had gotten too tall. It was 15 or 20 feet tall, and the blossoms were out of reach – and largely out of sight when blooming. It was like that when I bought my house, eons ago, and I cut it right to the ground back then, every bit of it. I didn’t care if it died. In fact I kind of hoped it would because it was so out of control. But the roots sent up new growth and if was a nice sized shrub a while. But life gets busy and all of a sudden it was too tall again. This time I was a bit more controlled.

 

I have been observing old lilacs to see what others have done with them, and how the plants have responded. At Saint Gaudens National Park I saw that the groundskeeper had cut back old lilacs to about 5 or 6 feet above ground, and that new branches had sprouted from dormant buds on those stems. I’m sure they looked pretty gawky for a year or two, but vigorous new growth had filled in. I decided to try the same.

 

So I cut back the lilacs, reducing their height to 4 to 6 feet. There will be no blossoms this year, and probably not next year. But there are a few root sprouts that have stems an inch thick, and those may produce blossoms. I just have to make sure those stems don’t reach for the sky.

 

You might wonder why my lilacs have gotten so tall. I think the answer is that they don’t get enough sunshine. There is a row of sugar maples only about 25 feet away from them, and these create more shade on my lilacs every year. Plants tend to grow tall and lanky if they are sunshine-deprived. They reach for the sun.

 

Elsewhere on my property that day I cut back my seven sons flower tree (Heptacodium miconiodes). This is a very vigorous fall-blooming tree I’ve had for 15 years or more. It can grow a shoot 6 feet in a year, once established. It is within eight feet of my house, and some of the branches were acting like voyeurs, trying to peak in my bedroom window. They needed some attention.

 

Pollarded plane tree in France

On one 10-foot stem I cut off all the branches. I am experimenting with a pruning technique called pollarding. This technique is commonly employed with English plane trees in Europe, and I like the look. Every few years trees are cut back to their trunks. The branch locations get scarred, and develop big lumps that then produce multiple new, vigorous branches.

 

Pollarding is particularly good for fast growing, weak-wooded trees. If those English plane trees were not cut back from time to time, the branches would likely break off from their own weight. That would be dangerous, as they are commonly planted along town streets and in parks. They are great shade trees.

 

Pollarding in France

I wouldn’t recommend cutting off all limbs on a tree and leaving just the trunk until you have tried pollarding part of the tree to see how it responds. I have read, for example, that one can pollard maples, oaks and beeches, but I wonder if they would perform well. They don’t grow as fast as some trees, and might take too long to develop an interesting appearance. Or try pollarding a small tree in a not-so prominent place to see how it does.

 

Fruit trees are most often pruned in late winter or early spring, but you can prune them now if you wish. We have some snow now, which makes ladder work more difficult, but a well-pruned apple tree can be a pleasant sight all winter. So have at it!

 

Henry’s gardening books are available from his website, www.Gardening-Guy.com. You may read his blog posts at https://dailyuv.com/gardeningguy.

 

How to Build a “Cold Cellar” or Vegetable Storage Bin

Posted on Tuesday, December 5, 2017 · Leave a Comment 



I had a banner year for root crops this year, and storage is a problem. For the past few years I had been storing root crops in a spare fridge, or in an old 25-gallon crock with a plywood lid in my cold basement. This year I went back to using a cement block bin that accommodates more produce. I call it my “cold cellar”.

 

There are two impediments to storing root crops for winter: maintaining the proper temperature, and keeping mice from getting at the food. My house was built in 1888 as a Creamery, or butter factory, and has a stone foundation – which will always make it possible for determined mice and squirrels to get in.

 

The building was built into a hillside and 3 sides are above grade level – which makes for a cold basement in winter months, as I only heat it when the temperature outside is below zero.

 

Cold Cellar Storage Bin

This year I built a cold cellar for potatoes that uses 22 cement blocks. Cement blocks are readily available and relatively inexpensive. Blocks that are 16 inches long, 8 inches wide and 8 inches tall generally cost about $2 each. In addition to the blocks all you need is a piece of plywood to cover it.

 

So here is what you need to do if you want to build a bin for storing vegetables. First, select a place where the temperature can be kept above freezing. Your garage might work, or a cold basement like mine. But you need to make sure it isn’t too cold, as you don’t want produce to freeze.

 

If temperatures drop below freezing during the coldest part of winter, you have a couple of options: you can carry your buckets of produce to a mudroom or unheated pantry for a few weeks, or you can add heat.

 

In an earlier version I used a drop light with a 75-watt incandescent bulb to provide heat in my storage bin. I kept an indoor-outdoor remote sensor in it that I could read upstairs, and plugged in the drop light when temperatures inside the bin dropped to 35 degrees.

 

A seedling heat mat can provide heat if needed

Another alternative, and probably a better one, is to install a heat mat. I have one that is designed for helping seeds to germinate by providing a gentle bottom heat. Most heat mats are small, just big enough for one flat, but I have one is 48 inches by 21 inches and uses 107 watts of energy. It should provide plenty of heat for the coldest of times. These are available at garden centers or from Gardeners Supply Company (www.gardeners.com) on-line.

 

Don’t set up a cold storage bin on a dirt floor. The mice will dig under the fortifying cement block wall, and get to your potatoes and carrots. Build it on a smooth cement floor. You can build any size you want, but I made mine 3 blocks long (4 in the front) and 2 blocks wide. And mine is 2 courses of blocks high, so I used a total of 22 blocks. It is big enough to accommodate six 5-gallon pails, but of course you can make a smaller one.

 

Root crops store best with high humidity. Winter air in New England is very dry, so I put an inch or two of moist sand in the bottom of each bucket. I do not use plastic lids on the buckets because the vegetables are living organisms that breathe slightly. They need air circulation, too, to keep mildew at bay.

 

For a lid to the storage bin, you can use plywood. Three quarter-inch plywood would be best, as it is least likely to warp. But five-eighths or even half inch will work. I recommend placing a few heavy objects or extra blocks on the outsides of the plywood to weight it down and minimize warping. Mice can get in through the smallest imaginable spaces.

 

Bernice Johnson of Cornish Flat, may she rest in peace, once told me a funny story about an elderly and mentally impaired neighbor who grew a lot of potatoes. He had a basement that was full of mice and rats. He stored his potatoes in a pile on the dirt floor and placated the rodents by going to town once a week and buying as many packages of week-old donuts as he could. He’d stand at the top of the stairs and then throw down donuts to feed them, making them promise to leave his potatoes alone. And it worked, he claimed!

 

Even in a dark, cool storage bin, potatoes somehow know when spring arrives. So I try to finish up eating – or sharing – most of my potatoes by the end of March. But I will save some until June so that I can plant them and start next year’s crop with them. I once went 20 years without buying potatoes, though that meant I had none during the early summer months. When my first new potatoes were ready to eat, I felt like a king at a royal banquet.

 

You may reach Henry at PO Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746. Please include a SASE if you wish a reply by mail. Better yet, e-mail him at henry.homeyer@comcast.net. You may read his blog at https://dailyuv.com/gardeningguy.

 

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