A Time to Harvest

Sometimes it’s tough to know just when to pick things in the vegetable garden. We don’t want to pick produce before it’s ready, but neither do we want to pick them after our fruits have passed their prime. And to confuse matters even more, each variety of vegetable has its own moment of perfection.

I remember the first time I grew ‘Green Zebra’ tomatoes and waited for them to get ripe. They didn’t appear to. Then a few fell off the vine – they were overripe. The only way I could tell they were ripe was by the feel. When they started to get soft, they were ripe. But mostly I pick tomatoes by their color.

Green beans are best before they show the lumps that are the individual seeds. Young beans are delicious, but of course, you don’t want to pick them when they are too young, as you’ll get less production that way. Some beans, especially pole beans like ‘Kwintus’ (from Cook’s Garden Seeds) are still very tasty when you can see individual beans in the pods. Part of knowing when to pick is letting a few things get older than they should, and then remembering what they look like.

By now your onions have been harvested, I suppose. They are easy to identify as ready to harvest: the tops fall over and turn brown. If yours are still in the ground, go get them! Although you can pull the onions and let them dry/cure in the garden, I think it is better to dry them on a porch or deck out of the rain.

Beets taste the same, or almost, whether picked early or late. I eat the thinnings early in the season, I eat some mid-season, I harvest some after frost. Frost does not harm them – if anything, it even makes them a little sweeter. Carrots are much the same. I don’t find that my big, late carrots get woody – but if the variety that you grow does get woody, pick them earlier.

Potatoes keep on getting bigger until the leaves brown up and flop over. I generally pull potatoes before then, but last year my granddaughter, Casey, grew potatoes and did not get to harvest them until the tops had pretty much disappeared. The potatoes were still perfect – though as a general rule I wouldn’t let potatoes stay in the ground that late, fearing that they might rot in a rainy spell. Frost does not harm them.

Sweet peppers will turn red, but if you let them stay on the vine to get red, you lose production. If you pick them green, the plants keep on flowering and producing more peppers. Hot peppers get hotter if you let them stay on the vine until they are fully ripe.

Lettuce can be harvested either as a cut-and-come-again crop, or harvested as heads. If lettuce plants start getting tall, they’re getting ready to bolt and flower. So I try to pick them before they do so – a bolting lettuce gets bitter.



When broccoli heads start to show yellow, they are about to go by. The flowers are yellow, and you want to pick the heads or side shoots before the flowers appear as flowers. But if they do flower, they’re still edible. And cut anything off that has flowered, so it will stimulate the plant to make more side shoots.

Kale can be harvested any time; I like to keep it growing well into the fall. Frost is not a problem, nor is snow. I keep picking kale until the temperatures go down into the teens. The oldest leaves, down at the bottom of the plant, can get a little tough with time. Be sure to remove the central rib before you cook or freeze the leaves.

Summer squash can be picked very small – or quite large. Patty pan squash, one of my favorites, is perfect at the 4-inch diameter size, though I know someone who picks it at the 2-inch size – almost bite sized. Zucchini grows so fast that I often find some – the escapees- that are 18 inches long. Those I quarter lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Then I run them through the shredder (top) blade of my food processor, making a nice mixture that I freeze as is. I use it as a base for making winter soups.

Blue hubbard

Blue hubbard

Speaking of winter, winter squash are a bit tricky to pick at just the right moment. What I have decided is that it really doesn’t matter when you pick them. When my blue hubbards or Waltham butternuts stop growing, or when I see that the stem is drying up, I pick them. Winter squash need to be cured for some weeks before eating for the best flavor.

Apples? If you have to yank on an apple to get it off the tree, it’s not ready to pick. If lots of apples are on the ground, the tree is probably ready to pick. Pears are usually picked green, and ripened on a window sill or in trays in the barn. Plums, like apples, come off in my hand at a gentle touch when they are fully ripe, but I can also tell by the color.

Like much in life, practice – and paying attention – makes perfect when it comes to harvesting. That, and having enough time to go out and get in the garden when you need to. Happy harvesting!

It Ain’t Over Yet: Fall Flowers Can Be a Joy

Big yellow buses are lumbering around everywhere I look, stopping and starting and making a morning car trip seem to take forever. A few trees are showing color, mainly those living in swamps or under stressful conditions. The leaves on my tomato plants have largely turned brown, meaning no new blossoms for late tomatoes. Fall is here. But I still have lots of flowers blooming, and more on the way.



Each fall I treat myself to some chrysanthemums. I don’t buy them at the grocery store in an effort to get the cheapest price. I go to my local farm stand and buy the biggest, most beautiful pots of mums I can. I like to support local farmers and garden centers – and I believe I get better quality flowers from them. Mums that have traveled on a truck from New Jersey aren’t necessarily of bad quality, but those that were grown near home are less likely to have been stressed or damaged by too little (or too much) water.

Sometimes I just plunk those mums down, pots and all, on the front steps. Doing so means I will have to water them every hot sunny afternoon, particularly if the mums are growing in peat pots instead of plastic ones. I like peat pots – they don’t use any petroleum products – but they do dry out more quickly than plastic. This is true even if you plant the pots in the ground. The lip of a peat pot will let moisture evaporate and dry out the roots unless the ground is pretty wet. So tear off the lip of the peat pot, or remove it entirely if popping them in the ground.

I know that some chrysanthemums sold now are said to be hardy in Zone 4, but I don’t care if they are or not. I use them as annuals, filling in spaces and brightening up places where I need color. They are great on the table, too, and will look good for 6 weeks or more.



Elsewhere in the garden I do have some nice blossoms. Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) is a tall fall bloomer that likes full sun. The petals are “recurved”, meaning that their daisy-like petals don’t lay flat or lean inward as the petals on a black-eyed Susan do. Instead, they lean back a little from the central button. Sneezeweed comes in a pure yellow, an orange and brown, a reddish color, and probably others. All are good cut flowers – and do not cause sneezing. I’ve read that the flowers were dried and used as snuff long ago.



Turtlehead (Chelone lyonii) is one of my fall favorites. It likes moist soil, but will grow anywhere from full sun to full shade. It spreads slowly by root, creating dramatic clumps in just a few years – but it won’t take over the garden. The foliage is a deep green, stems are 4-feet tall, and the flowers are a pure pink – in the shape of a turtle’s head. There is also a smaller white variety, which is a native wildflower, but the blossoms are sort of a dirty white, and not very interesting.

Then there are many different fall asters. Several of mine stand over 4 feet tall and bloom in a variety of blues, purples, white and even pink. Butterflies seem to love them. They look nice in a vase, but I find they don’t last as well as turtlehead, mums, and some others. I let native asters – treated as weeds by some – fill in around the edge of wooded areas and in my shade gardens. They are much smaller than the cultivated ones, and their colors are not as bright. But keep an eye out for a clump along the roadside and bring some home if you like.

Then there are the fall crocus (Colchicum spp.) which are not crocus at all, but do resemble them. Mine are either white or lavender, and have either single or double blossoms. They pop up unexpectedly – they have no fall foliage. The foliage appears in the spring, then dies off. Each blossom is 2-4 inches from tip to bottom, and most appear on stems that don’t quite hold them up. So they flop unless you plant them in a place with a ground cover that will support them. Myrtle (Vinca major) seems to work well for that. My fall crocus have not yet appeared, but I know they will be along soon. They are bulb plants, and a bit pricey.

Gentiana makinoi 'Marsha'

Gentiana makinoi 'Marsha'

Gentians are in bloom now, both in the wild and in my garden. The deep true blue of a gentian is unbeatable. This year mine are entwined with a perennial called Knautia macedonia, which has been blooming since mid-summer. It is a wine-red, pincushion-like flower that has long, thin stems. The two plants together are gorgeous, and the stiff stems of the gentian hold up the blossoms of knautia on rainy days. The particular gentian I grow is Gentiana makinoi, a variety named ‘Marsha’. Look for both, buy them if you find them; both are quite scarce in the nursery trade.

We never know when frost will first nip at our veggies and flowers. Most years recently it has been mid-October for me. But I’ve seen frost here in August once, and plenty in September. Until frost I’ll have plenty of annual flowers blooming. A particularly nice one for me this year has been Browallia “Amethyst’. The small blue and white flowers have been flowering like crazy for ages, and show no signs of slowing down. But I know their life span is limited, and I dread the day when the grim reaper – Jack Frost – takes them away.

Garden Designing with the Peek-a-Boo Effect in Mind

Little children – and grandparents – love to play games that make us giggle. One of the very first a child can play is called Peek-a-Boo: A child covers her eyes and you – and they – seemingly disappear. When they open their eyes (or pull back their hands) we are present. Good garden designers do the same with long views and sometimes even with special plants, or with a piece of garden sculpture. No, no tricks with hands over eyes are involved. It’s all about controlling what a visitor to the garden can see at any particular vantage point. Let me explain.

Framing Mt Bigelow and Flagstaff Lake

Framing Mt Bigelow and Flagstaff Lake

I was recently sitting on a porch overlooking Flagstaff Lake and Mt. Bigelow in Maine as the sun was setting. In front of me there were 3 or more clumps of spruce and white birch. Between each grouping of trees there was a 10-15 foot wide gap. The trees made it so that I could not see the entire view at once. I found myself moving my rocking chair so that I could see the section of the view that, at that moment, was most captivating. The view became all the more special when I had it in my sights. I was not bothered by the fact that I did not have an unencumbered view. I liked seeing just some of the view, helping me to focus on one particular aspect of it.

You can do the same thing in your garden. You can frame a view across the valley (if you are lucky enough to have one) by planting trees or pruning trees that are already there. You can hire a person with a chain saw to take out a 60-foot white pine if it’s blocking the view entirely. If you do so, you will get different glimpses of the view as you pass through the garden.

But back to the porch. Museums not only frame their art well, most choose a path for visitors so that the most spectacular views are in big rooms with high ceilings – after passing through a series of smaller, darker rooms. The Monet haystack paintings at the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago are in a large, well-lit room that one enters through smaller, darker spaces. With time, you can do the same in your garden.

The creation of “rooms” in a garden is an old technique first used, I believe in England, France and Italy. Using walls or hedges, a large space can be broken down into smaller spaces, controlling what a viewer can see at any given moment. But creating rooms is not enough.

As you leave one space and come to another, there should be something special in each new space. Contrast keeps a visitor engaged. Each time I leave the brightness of my main garden to enter my primrose garden (a relatively dark space under some old apple trees) I am delighted. I slow down and look carefully at what is growing there. The change in light intensity causes me to pause, allowing my eyes to get used to the darkness. I see not only primroses (in season), but wildflowers, interesting foliage or colorful seeds, and I am delighted.

The natural contours of the land can help you to define garden rooms that are curved and asymmetrical. Letting wild trees grow up along an old, fallen-down stone wall can help to enclose a space. And a garden room does not need 4 walls. Even two walls will define a space nicely.

In small gardens, a Peek-a-Boo effect can be created by placing tall, wispy plants at the front of a garden bed, and smaller, intensely colored plants behind them. I have an artemesia that is 48 inches tall with big clusters of delicate white flowers. Its botanical name is Artemesia lactiflora. It is perfect for partially hiding something smaller behind it. This year I planted some short annuals around and behind it, an intensely red globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa). You have to peek around the artemesia in order to get a better view of those red flowers.

I grow showy ladyslipper orchids (Cypripedium reginae) in a bright, sunny part of my garden. I keep them surrounded by other, taller plants. This is for two reasons: one, the taller things provide a bit of shade to my ladyslippers, and two, it creates that Peek-a-Boo effect that I like. I like the fact that in order to see and appreciate these lovely June-bloomers, a viewer must stop walking – which helps one focus on their unique character.

And as you work on your landscape, think about winter. You will probably spend little time in the garden. Can you create views and beauty that can be seen from your favorite chair or the window over the kitchen sink? Can you partially hide a stone, a bright blue ceramic birdbath or a statue or with your plantings? Can you provide just a glimpse of it from each window? Peek-a-Boo.

Creating special garden spaces is a long term effort. I’ve owned my house in Cornish Flat, NH for over 41 years – and I’m still working to improve my gardens.

The Edible Lawn

Posted on Wednesday, August 31, 2011 · Leave a Comment 

One of the advantages of being an organic gardener is that you can eat any edible plant on your property – whether you planted it or not. Why not rethink your approach to weeds? Instead of cussin’ ‘em, why not eat ‘em?

Dandelions in lawn

Dandelions in lawn

Let’s start with the lawn. Dandelions (Taraxaum officinale) are the scourge of so many home owners that it’s a wonder they haven’t been driven into extinction. Thousands of tons of herbicides are spread on lawns each year– and millions of dollars spent – to kill dandelions, but still they persist. Maybe it’s time to try a new approach.

According to Just Weeds: History, Myths and Uses by Pamela Jones, dandelions have been used in Europe both as food and medicine for at least 2,300 years. It was brought to America by early settlers and those white parasols carrying seeds in early summer have dispersed plants in every state throughout the country.

A good spring salad can be made by slicing off the crowns of dandelions – that part of the plant between the fleshy tap root and the green leaves. Greens of dandelion can be steamed or boiled, and served with butter and lemon juice, or served in a cream sauce on toast, like creamed spinach. Once dandelions bloom, their leaves get much more bitter. If you want to eat them now, try them in a cream sauce that will balance out the bitterness, or boil them briefly, drain, and steam until tender.

A healthy drink can be made from the roots of dandelions as a substitute for coffee. Nancy Phillips of Groveton, NH and the author of The Village Herbalist, prepares it by washing dandelion roots, air drying them, and then chopping them into small pieces. She then roasts them in the oven at 250 degrees for 15 minutes. When she’s ready to make a pot of dandelion-root tea, she tosses a few dried chunks in a pan of water and simmers until she’s ready. She adds a little cinnamon and honey for a breakfast drink that is tasty and is said to have liver-cleansing properties.

Ground Ivy

Ground Ivy

Ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea), also known as Creeping Charlie, Jill-over-the Ground, , Cat’s Foot, Rat’s Mouth and dozens of other names (some of which are surely not fit to print), is a persistent pest. You may know it by its purplish-blue flowers and scalloped round, dark green leaves. It has square stalks and fragrant leaves – they smell minty when crushed or pulled. If you have it, surely you have identified it as the weed able climb over almost anything, even sending down roots through well mulched flower beds. It grows in lawns, and anywhere else it darn well pleases. Unless you change your attitude, you might go crazy if you think you can beat it. But hear this: the leaves make quite a tasty tea.

Before hops were introduced as a flavoring and preservative of beer, ground ivy was used by the Saxons to keep beer fresh and tasty. But for the busy gardener, tea is easier: just pick a few leaves, add hot water, and drink as a refreshing pick-me-up. Dry some of your weeded plants in the summer and save for winter.

Plantain (Plantago major) is another common lawn “pest” that has been used medicinally for centuries, and one that can be eaten. Plantain leaves are dark green, rounded, but longer than wide and ribbed longitudinally. The leaves all originate at a central point. Their flower stalks stand up in the middle and are loaded with small seeds. It can be eaten in spring salads, steamed and eaten like spinach, or added to soups. It is a mild laxative, so moderation is the key to its use.

Plantain, like many medicinal herbs, has been used for a variety of uses. Rub it on rashes, insect bites or wounds to alleviate itch or sting. Indians allegedly used it to counteract the poison of snake bites. It has been used in teas and tinctures to cure bronchitis, whooping cough, ulcers and diarrhea and more. Before you try it for those uses, you should check with a qualified herbalist, of course.

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is more of a garden weed than one found in lawns, but it is a low, fleshy creeper that can sneak into lawns, particularly along the edge of a flower bed or the vegetable garden.  It has glossy green leaves, small yellow flowers, and reddish round stems. The stems all originate at the center, and radiate outward. It is quite brittle, which works to its advantage. If you try to pull it out, it breaks and re-sprouts. It can set down roots from broken stems, too.

Purslane can be eaten raw or cooked in a variety of ways. Like the others above, it can be eaten raw in salads, served like spinach, or added to soups or stews. It is most commonly eaten early in the spring before our vegetable gardens are producing all the greens we want.

Each weed or wild-harvested plant has its own flavor and nutritional benefits. Many are rich in vitamin C – and hence a little tart for the average tongue. Others extract and concentrate trace minerals from the soil. It is a good idea to consult a knowledgeable person in your neighborhood before you consume any weed, just to be sure you have harvested something edible. Dandelions, of course, we all know – and they are free for the taking. You won’t have to plant them either. Those lovely white parasols will float in and deliver seeds to your lawn and garden – whether you want them or not.


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Enjoying the Fruits of Our Labor

Posted on Wednesday, August 24, 2011 · Leave a Comment 

I’ve been doing some sort of garden work every day since March 1, when I planted my first seeds indoor (artichokes, leeks and onions). That’s nearly 6 months of effort. Of course, most of what I do is fun, at least for me. But now is the best part: eating from the garden every day and putting up food for the winter.

Tomatoes are my favorite vegetable (or fruit, if you want to be technical). Once they start ripening I eat them two, even three meals a day. I love eating them whole like apples, in salads, or eaten between 2 slices of bread. Tomatoes promote good health and give any cooked dish a tastier, juicier flavor. But you know that.

Here is how I avoid becoming a slave to my 40-50 tomato plants: I freeze most of the whole. No need to blanch or skin them, Just put a dozen in a gallon freezer-grade zipper bag and freeze. I like to use a common drinking straw to suck the air out of the zipper bag before sealing it. I insert the straw and zip the bag right up to the straw. Then I suck out the air, watching the bag snuggle up to the tomatoes. Finally I remove the straw and pinch the last bit of zipper closed all at once. No need to buy one of the machines to do the job for you. And a bag without humid summer air in it has less frost on your tomatoes.

Come winter when I need tomatoes for a stew or sauce, I run the tomatoes under hot tap water, rubbing the skin off with my fingers. I let the tomatoes warm a trifle, then chop and use. When fully thawed they have the consistency of canned tomatoes, so I can’t use them in sandwiches, alas.

Any flawed tomatoes I turn into tomato paste after cutting off any bad parts. I use a paring knife to cut out the attachment point, then squeeze out as many of the seeds and as much excess juice as possible. I halve or quarter the tomato, and toss it into the food processor. I blend the tomatoes into a puree, then transfer it to an enameled cast iron pot to slowly simmer. It takes a few hours, but eventually the puree gets thick enough for a spoon to stand up in, which tells me it’s done.

I also use less-than-perfect tomatoes to make sauce, and sometimes use a hot water bath process to can a few jars to store in the pantry. Most sauce I freeze, despite the fact that I like to look up on the shelves of my pantry and see nicely labeled jars all in a row. Canning takes a lot of time and effort, so I prefer freezing.

NESCO Dehydrator

NESCO Dehydrator

I also dehydrate tomatoes. I cut cherry tomatoes in half, place them in a food dehydrator cut-side up, and dry for 24 hours. I use a NESCO American Harvester dehydrator, one called the Garden Master Pro. The dehydrator uses 1,000 watts of electricity per hour, but I can stack up 8 trays of tomatoes at once if I have them. Once dry, I could just store them in zipper bags on a shelf, but I usually store them in my freezer as I usually have adequate space. I also dry apples, hot peppers, pears, and sometimes garlic for making garlic powder.

Blanching pot

Blanching pot

Some veggies need to be blanched, or slightly cooked in boiling water, before freezing. The ones I blanch include summer squash, kale, beans, broccoli, corn and Brussels sprouts. The reason for blanching is to stop the enzymes in the vegetables that would continue the ripening or aging process. Beans, if not blanched, get tough and stringy with time. I’ve never read a good explanation why tomatoes don’t seem to age in the freezer without blanching. Peppers don’t need blanching either.

Home-frozen vegetables seem to have a bad name with many gardeners because most books on freezing tell you to blanch longer than I deem necessary. Putting Food By by Greene, Hertzberg and Vaughan is considered the bible on how to store foods, but the authors say to blanch green beans in boiling water for 2-4 minutes, depending on size. To me, that’s cooking them, not blanching them. Cooked that long, they’ll be mushy when you eat them, and I want my beans to be crunchy.

To me, the key to blanching is brevity. Start with lots of water at a rolling boil, and don’t add too many veggies at a time. I have a special 2-piece blanching pot – it has an inner pot with drainage holes that fits into the (slightly) bigger water pot. I lower the beans into the boiling water, and then as soon as they change color – turning a lighter green – I pull up the inner pot, allowing the water to drain out. Using the lid as a saucer, I carry the inner pot to the kitchen sink and dump the beans into a full sink of cold water.

The cold water stops the cooking process. Some people add ice to the water, but I just change the water frequently to keep it good and cold. I then drain the beans in a colander, spin dry in my salad spinner, and pat them dry with a cotton tea towel. Then into zipper bags and the freezer.

So I eat from my garden all year round. Yes, it takes some effort to put food in the freezer, but I take great satisfaction in being able to eat my own produce, especially since I know it has never been sprayed with chemicals.


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Biological Controls

Posted on Wednesday, August 17, 2011 · Leave a Comment 

It’s not always easy to be an organic gardener. Even committed organic gardeners sometimes long to spray herbicide on gout weed or that pesky poison ivy. There are times when Japanese beetles or rose chafers arrive in throngs just before your garden party and you want to nuke those nasty critters. There may be times when you have an urge for the good old days, the time before you understood that spraying an insecticide kills beneficial bugs along with the bad, aggravating your pest problems. But there are also problems that are more easily addressed with organic solutions.


Purple loosestrife

Purple loosestrife

Right now purple loosestrife is blooming in swamps and along streams and roadsides. It is a tall, beautiful weed with small purple-pink flowers growing on square stems. So who can object to such a pretty plant? Biologists know that it is a plant that came from Europe and has few natural predators here to keep it from taking over wetlands. It has an amazingly robust root system and can elbow out native plants, in part, because it produces huge numbers of seeds. Not only that, the plant offers little of food value to our wildlife. It’s pretty, but worthless. A thug.

Purple loosestrife came from Europe in the early 1800’s –probably in soil used as ballast in ships – but it is not a problem there. Why not? It evolved there, and over time some 120 species of insects learned to eat it. Of these, 14 are host specific, meaning that they eat it – but nothing else. A few of these insects were brought to quarantine labs to test the following: Will they eat related species of the target plants, or plants that share a habitat? Will they attack any of our major crops such as corn, wheat and soy? Beetles have been found to help control purple loosestrife.

If you’ve ever tried to dig out purple loosestrife, you know that it has an amazing root system that will challenge even the strongest back. Scraps of roots left in the ground will start new plants. Not only that, each mature plant produces many thousand tiny seeds every year, so even if you did poison or pull one, the soil if full of tiny time-release capsules – seeds –  that will start the process all over again next year, and the year after that, and so forth. But it can be kept under control with the use of introduced beetles.

Since 1994 beetles that eat purple loosestrife have been successfully reducing stands of this exotic. They reduce the numbers of plants to around 10% of pre-introduction levels; as the numbers of plants drop, so do the number of the predator beetles.

Dr. Casagrande and his colleagues at the University of Rhode Island have been working on finding and introducing biological controls for major plant and insect pests. But it is a slow process. They have introduced 3 parasitic wasps to control the dreaded lily leaf beetle, that red pest that devours our Oriental and Asiatic lilies. When I asked him recently how the wasps are doing, he told me that they are well established in sites in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. That some have spread as much as 10 miles since introduction. However, the predator insects are not for sale – so we just have to wait for them to slowly make the way to our gardens.

So what can the home gardener do? First, realize that help is on the way – in the form of biocontrols. Second, recognize that herbicides for plants and insecticides for beetles ultimately don’t work. Yes, you can kill lily leaf beetles or loosestrife with a spray, but you can’t eliminate them. Patience is required as Mother Nature, with a little help from scientists, will eventually restore balance.

I have purple loosestrife near my stream. My control? I cut it down with my pruning shears, thus preventing the plant from producing seeds. When small plants appear in my flower gardens, as they have done, I dig them out before they establish a big root system.

Angel's Trumpet or Datura

Angel's Trumpet or Datura

I have given up planting Oriental and Asiatic lilies. Dr. Casagrande told me that there are a few cultivars of lilies that are less attractive to the pest beetles, such as ‘Black Beauty’. But instead of those lilies I now grow a lovely unrelated plant called angel’s trumpet (Datura spp.). The flowers are big white trumpets not unlike the lilies, but they bloom in sequence all summer, sometimes a dozen or more at a time. It’s an annual here that I re-plant every year. One note of caution: the seeds are poisonous if eaten.

As an organic gardener, I have to accept that I am not in total control of the environment and that sometimes I have to endure some losses. Biological controls do work, and have made some exotic pests such as birch leafminers into nothing more than minor annoyances. There are already places where purple loosestrife is no longer a problem.  I urge you to stay the course and be organic.

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Mid Summer Blahs

Posted on Wednesday, August 10, 2011 · Leave a Comment 

August can be a tough month in the flower garden. Generally it’s hot and dry. Even the annual flowers that are supposed to bloom like the Energizer Bunny are tired and moody. I pulled some muscles in my back (foolishly moving big stones as if I were 25instead of 65) so the weeds in my garden got ahead of me, too. But now I am back at it, and trying to perk up my gardens.

The front walkway at my house is flanked by 2 flower beds, each just over 2 feet wide and about 8 feet long. In the spring I had Forget-Me-Nots (Myosotis sylvatica) and pansies providing color and verve, along with daffodils and crocus.  But all those are long gone – or dormant.

Persian shield

Persian shield

I planted a variety of annuals along the walkway including nicotiana, verbena, salvia, cosmos and a lovely plant called Persian shield (Strobilanthes dyerianus) that I grow for the rich purple and silver foliage. The verbenas were a fancy new variety but they have proved too tasty to some ambitious insect. The nicotiana (also called tobacco plant) is still blooming quite nicely in lime green and a brownish red. The cosmos are in bud, but currently flowerless. Annual poppies have come and gone. My salvias are showing just a few deep blue/purple blossoms.

The problem now is that most garden centers do not have a wide variety of blooming flowers for sale. Geraniums are still for sale in fire engine red, pink and white. And some places have expensive hanging planters, but my budget for $25 planters has run its course. So what can I do?

Daylilies, one of mid-summer’s heroines, are in their glory now. I could dig up a clump from elsewhere on the property and move it to the front walkway. Or I could visit a garden center and buy a potted daylily in bloom and move it into an empty spot left when I pulled weeds and the dozens of annual poppies that show up each year.

I realize that the common orange daylily has prejudiced some gardeners against the breed. They are so common that they are considered trite. We like the new, the different, and once I suppose the orange daylily fit that description. Another problem is that orange daylilies have roots that spread, and a small clump turns into a big clump in just a year or two. And they are hard to dig up. Not only that, even a small scrap of root will generate a new plant.

Not so the fancier daylilies. They are “clumpers” that stay in one place. They are easier to dig and move, and can provide color for a few weeks each summer. There are early bloomers, mid-season bloomers, and some that bloom well into the fall. Colors? Clear yellow, rich yellow, various shades of pink, red and even lavender are available. Tall ones with scapes (flower stems) over five feet are available, as are tiny ones with scapes barely 18 inches.

If you want to dig up or divide a daylily, you will need to dig from at least 4 places – thrust a drain spade or transplant spade into the soil at a 45 degree angle on each side, each time trying to get under the center of the clump and tip the spade back to lift it a little. A big clump will give you a good workout. You can divide the clump by slicing through the root mass with a spade or a machete. Even a long serrated knife will do the job. Cutting is much easier than trying to tease apart the roots with a pair of garden forks, which is recommended by some garden authorities. Yes, you may damage a few bits of root when cutting them, but daylilies are invincible.

Daylily blossoms only last a day (hence the name), but most scapes have 6 or more buds that bloom in sequence. I pick scapes with flowers in bloom and put them in a vase. The buds open in sequence for a week or so. So don’t hesitate to use them in a vase. By the way, golden rod is a wildflower (a.k.a weed) that is starting to bloom and does well in a vase. It is unjustly accused of causing hay fever – the real culprit is ragweed (with inconspicuous green flowers), which blooms at the same time.

Great blue lobelia

Great blue lobelia

Other flowers in bloom for me right now in other places on my property include cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and its cousin great blue lobelia (Lobelia syphilitica) that is showing nice blue spikes. The first needs a moist, sunny site, while the later does fine in hot, dry places (or any sunny spot, really). Black-eyed Susan is in full glory, too. Bee balm (Monarda spp.) is finishing up, and obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana) is just starting to open. Later the fall-bloomers will be along, so I have plenty to look forward to.

So what did I do? I didn’t move a daylily, I dug some annuals that were growing in moist, rich soil and moved them up to the front walkway where the soil is drier. I used my CobraHead weeder to get under a short zinnia (Profusion series) and a big, juicy marigold. They reminded me that I need to water the plants in afternoon sun along the walkway daily – and I’ll give them (and all my potted plants) some liquid fish fertilizer for a mid-summer boost.

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Creating Beauty on an Urban Lot

Posted on Wednesday, August 3, 2011 · Leave a Comment 

Tom Kelley lives in a big 3-story brick Victorian house just off the town common in Newport, NH that would appeal to the ghoulish characters of the Addams family. But his gardens are full of flowers and vegetables – and are quite a contrast to the building itself, which had been, among other things, home to a veteran’s club and bar.

When Tom bought the place 11 years ago, much of what is now garden was then parking lot. “I didn’t need a huge parking lot, “he said. “I started digging up the asphalt by hand, then brought in an excavator.” Even parts of the property not covered with black top were filled with rubble. “The whole back yard was a big parking lot. When I dug into the ‘soil’ all I found was gravel and chunks of asphalt.”

In order to create a vegetable garden, Tom built wood-sided beds to contain new soil. He now grows tomatoes, beans, squash, greens and much more with great success. “I had a couple of truckloads of soil brought in for my original beds, but I have been adding compost, hay and oak leaves for years. Originally not a thing would grow, not even weeds. We can grow pretty much anything now.

Stone Garden Arch

Stone Garden Arch

One of the most interesting features of Tom’s garden is his use of stone. He bought some large slabs of granite, and decided that he should use them to make a statement. He hired an excavator and set stones in two groups of three: two vertical stones about 4 feet apart, and a large slab on top of each. They had relatively flat edges, so he was able to make good, steady – and sturdy – structures that look a bit like the Greek letter pi. A modest man, Tom said, I’m not sure it was completely my idea. I was talking to this guy who was selling stones, and a friend suggested making an arch. So I did. It makes sense here – pi is related to circles (in mathematics), and one is placed at the entrance to a labyrinth (a circle with walking paths).”

American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana)

American Hornbeam

Tom’s life partner, Sonia Swierczynski, is a landscaper who lives in Norwich, VT. She has extensive experience with a great variety of plants. Together they have selected and planted a very unusual group of plants. At the front of the house, for example, they planted a hedge of American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana). Sonia explained their choice:  ”We wanted to sit on the porch) but didn’t need to totally block out the view of the street. We wanted some diffusion of the view. We didn’t want to shut everything out.” They planted the hornbeam as small plants about 5-feet apart and now, 6 years later, the screen works well. It is 7-feet tall and has filled in nicely. For privacy elsewhere on the property a neighbor put what Sonia calls a “shiny white plastic fence”. She planted red daylilies on their side of it, one called ‘Salieri’ (after the composer) and it is a fabulous contrast to the fence.

Tiger Eye Sumac

Tiger Eye Sumac

Other woody plants that Tom has installed include two kinds of decorative sumac (Rhus typhina), ‘Tiger Eye’ and ‘Lacinata’. Sumacs have extensive root systems that send up suckers, often creating large thickets that are difficult to control. But Tom does not worry about that.  “I really liked the form of the sumac and its Oriental look. I really wanted it. I planted it in a place that I thought I could control it by mowing around it, and so far it’s fine,” he said.

Another favorite shrub of Tom and Sonia’s is ‘Limelight’ hydrangea  (Hydrangea paniculata). This is a trademarked variety of the Proven Winners Company. As its name suggests, the panicles (blossoms) are a lime green, though they turn pinkish in the fall. The plants get to be 6-8 feet tall and wide, and are hardy to Zone 3. According to Sonia, “All the hydrangeas are very happy here, and they seem to fit the Victorian nature of the home.”  They grow numerous kinds of lilac, which also are appropriate for the era of the home.

Tom’s lot is perhaps 3 or 4 times larger than a standard city lot, so big perennial flowers work well there. Tree scabiosa (Cephalaria gigantea), for example, grows to be 5-7 feet tall and displays bright yellow 2-inch flowers. It is hardy to Zone 3. They grow a couple of interesting burnets (Saguisorba spp.) including ‘Pink Elephant’ and ‘Pink Brushes’, both big plants that they purchased at Opus Plants in Little Compton, Rhode Island (www.opustopiarium.com). When I looked at the plant list of Opus Plants on-line, I was amazed to see many very hard to find perennials, and plan to visit them soon.

Other big flowers include a fall aster, a variety called ‘Hella Lacey’ and Virginia mallow (Sida hermaphrodita). Virginia mallow grows up to 10 feet tall with big lobed leaves and small white flowers. It is a flower native to Pennsylvania and neighboring states, but is considered endangered.

Tom and Sonia

Tom and Sonia

Tom and Sonia have planted several nice decorative grasses including Siberian Greybeard (Spodiopogon sibericus) and Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra), one of the few grasses I know that will grow in shade.

There really are too many interesting plants in Tom and Sonia’s garden to mention them all. I do know that next June I will visit again to see their peony collection when it’s in bloom – they have a great selection, particularly of white and coral colored ones, which Sonia says “just glow at dusk”. I can’t wait to see them.

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Learning about Gardening

Posted on Wednesday, July 20, 2011 · Leave a Comment 

While it’s true that I spend a lot of time studying and reading about plants, much of what I know comes from paying attention – outdoors, in the garden. Observation is a great teacher, I recommend it to you. Here are a few of my recent observations.

blazing star, also called gayfeather (Liatris spp.)

Blazing Star

Last week I was admiring a nice stand of blazing star, also called gayfeather (Liatris spp.). It is a spiky plant with bluish-purple flowers (or occasionally white) and in my part of the world it is just coming into bloom. The flower stalks stand up anywhere from 18-36 inches in clumps that increase in size each year. I’ve not had much luck with it – mine has tended to disappear after a year or two. I have tried 3 or more different species of it, none of which was long lived.

The owner of the Liatris offered me a clump or two, saying that her stand – 50 or more plants distributed over a 20 foot circle – was made up of “volunteers” that had all come from one plant. I was amazed to discover (when I went to dig out a clump) that they were not rooted in the earth. They were growing in the 2-3 inches of bark mulch that was sitting on weed mat that is impenetrable to roots. A light bulb went on in my head.

What I learned is that Liatris does well in dry, lean soil – or no soil at all (bark mulch has little nutritional value to plants). It needs no fertilizer. I have a garden with rich soil full of organic matter, and in most places on my property the soil stays moist, even in dry times. In the winter it can be downright soggy. Looking in Steven Still’s book, Manual of Herbaceous Ornamental Plants I read confirmation: “One should avoid soggy soil situations during the winter.” Aha! I should have checked before I planted. He also notes that Liatris blooms from top of the stem downward, the opposite of most flower spikes.

Digging out a small dandelion in my vegetable garden recently I got the entire root by loosening the soil around it with my CobraHead weeder. As I was about to toss the weed into a bucket I noticed an inch section of the root was as almost as thick as a pencil but the rest was much smaller. Aha! I≠d had help in my garden, and one of my weeders had pulled a dandelion but broken off the root. That small section of root had spawned a new plant.

The lesson from that dandelion? Be careful pulling weeds, particularly those that are perennial or have tap roots. Even a small section left in the ground will produce a new plant. I know people who rototill their gardens year after year, chopping up dandelion roots, grasses and annual weeds. The annual weeds can be killed by tilling; grasses and perennial weeds usually are not.

If you hear a root snap when you are weeding, a plant will probably come back. So loosen the soil well, and try to get the entire weed. Weed when the soil is moist, even if it means watering before weeding. And use a good tool like the CobraHead (www.cobrahead.com) to get under weeds to loosen roots.

bugbane or snakeroot (Cimicifuga racemosa)


It’s been hot and dry recently, which is not a great time for transplanting perennials. But I was installing a new garden bed, and we had a spot for a large plant. I wanted a full-sized bugbane or snakeroot (Cimicifuga racemosa) for the spot, although few nurseries sell plants the size I wanted. But I had one in my garden – a volunteer that had elbowed its way in. A gorgeous plant, it stood over 5-feet tall but was shading out the neighboring plants. It needed to go.

I hadn’t dug a snakeroot in a long time, but decided it was worth a try after Anne Sprague at Edgewater Farm in Plainfield, NH told me that it has a shallow root system and transplants quite well (things with deep tap roots or fleshy tubers are not so easy to transplant).

I dug the plant early in the morning, and re-planted it with half an hour. I dug it out with my drain spade. This is a pointed spade that is long and narrow: 16 inches long and only 5 or 6 inches wide, available at your local hardware store. I went around the plant, poking my spade under the roots at a 45 degree angle and lifting it slightly by pulling down on the handle. Once I had gone all around the plant, I pried it up and scooped up the plant.



Yes, that snakeroot took some special care for a week or more. I checked on it, watered it daily, even talked to it – words of encouragement cannot hurt. I also administered a solution of Superthrive (www.superthrive.com), a concentrated vitamin and hormone mixture that seems to reduce signs of plant stress. It’s expensive – $12 or more for 4 ounces, but only half a teaspoon is needed in a 2-gallon watering can. I’ve been using it for years, and seen stressed plants recover remarkably quickly when they get it. It’s not a fertilizer, but I often mix it in with some liquid fish fertilizer when I transplant.

Gardening for me is a passion. I love digging in the soil, planting, seeing new plants develop and grow. By observing well and remembering what works, I have created some very special gardens. You can, too.

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Gardening: A Metaphor for Life

Posted on Wednesday, July 13, 2011 · Leave a Comment 

Gardening can be considered a metaphor for life. Some gardeners like their gardens – and their lives – simple and predictable. They plant things that they know will succeed and look good: daffodils, daylilies, marigolds, purple cone flowers and such. I grow all those things, but I like to take some risks, too. After all, I could be run over by a bus before the end of the growing season (though my mother did a good job of teaching me to look both ways before crossing). And I want to have the joys of growing special plants that are not necessarily hardy here.

I’m a plant collector and get great joy in growing plants that are outside their climatic zone (or that require special conditions) and seeing them do well. Taking a risk in the garden is different than racing motorcycles or skiing down the north face of Mt. Washington. Yes, I did once spend $75 on a yellow ladyslipper that did not make it through the winter because a dog dug it up, exposing the roots. But that was not personally perilous. I recommend taking some risks in the garden.

spicebush, Carolina allspice, sweet bubby or Calycanthus floridus

Calycanthus Floridus

My most recent ≈risk≈ was planting a shrub variously called, spicebush, Carolina allspice or sweet bubby. Those names are from my bible of woody plants, Manual of Woody Landscape Plants by Michael Dirr. Sweet bubby – that’s worth planting just for the name! Its Latin name is Calycanthus floridus Just as plants with botanical names including canadensis indicate northern origins, plants with floridus indicate southern plants. So it may not do well here.

I am a sucker for plants in bloom. I was recently at EC Brown≠s nursery in Thetford Hill, VT (www.ecbrownsnursery.com) and saw that new-to-me shrub, spicebush or sweet bubby, in bloom, and had to take one home. The blossoms are a deep dark red, globe-shaped and about 2 inches in diameter. According to Dirr≠s book, it is considered hardy to Zone 4, but “-15 or -20 is the breakpoint – flowers occur on short shoots from leaf axils along the entire stem length, i.e. where buds are present; even if shoot tips are winter killed, the potential for good flowering is excellent.” So I am optimistic that it will survive and thrive for me.

After my sister, Ruth Anne Mitchell, died unexpectedly two years ago I planted some plants of dubious hardiness here in her honor. Ruth Anne was a risk taker – she was an intrepid international traveler who thought nothing of hiking a hundred mile through a war zone such as Liberia during the civil war there. While working for an international aid agency she was once captured by teenage rebels carrying automatic weapons and who were high on drugs. They thought she would be scared. Not so. She lectured them, and asked if they would treat their mothers like that. Chagrinned, they brought her to their adult leader who reprimanded them and then let her continue on her way.

Among the plants that I planted in memory of Ruth Anne that did not survive were bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), trailing arbutus (Epigea repens) and that yellow ladyslipper. I also planted 3 blue Himalayan poppies (Meconopsis betonicifolia ), and 2 died that first winter. The third bloomed but died the following winter. Undaunted, I bought 3 more from Cady≠s Falls Nursery (www.cadysfallsnursery.com) in Morrisville, VT this year. That one successful poppy, with true sky-blue blossoms, gave me great joy, taught me where to plant it – and gave me the willingness to try again.

Darmera peltata

Darmera peltata

Of all the flowers I planted for Ruth Anne, the most successful was the umbrella plant (Darmera peltata). My bible of perennials, Steven Stills≠ Manual of Herbaceous Ornamental Plants, lists it as only hardy in Zones 5-7 (minus 20 to zero in the coldest parts of winter). The first year after planting it limped along, but this spring it sent up numerous flower spikes with lovely pink flowers before the leaves appeared. And now those umbrella leaves are a foot across and the clump covers a 4-foot circle.

The key to out-of-zone success is getting the soil and sun requirements right for the plant. Acidity, drainage and exposure to cold winds really do make a difference. Even though the books by Dirr and Stills cost well over $100 for the pair, I think they are worth the investment: they tell you not only cold hardiness, they tell you what kind of soil is needed. I know the world wide web is supposed to have all answers, but I like an authoritative book that I can depend on.

Most nurseries have Dirr’s book on hand, and will let you read it before deciding if you should invest in a woody plant. Dirr’s book is very personal, with his strong feelings expressed, and anecdotes about where he has seen a particular plant growing. I use Stills≠ book to tailor the soil for perennials at planting time: he details the fertility needed, so I know if I should add plenty of organic fertilizer, just a little, or none at all.

Take a good look at your own garden. Are you willing to try some new plants? I spent hours this past weekend pulling out the roots of Queen of the Prairie (Filipendula rubra) so that I could plant my new spicebush or Œsweet bubby≠. And if it doesn≠t survive? Well, I’ll have a good place to try another interesting plant!

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