Winter Planning: What Size Tree to Buy?

          The snow is deep, the temperatures well below freezing. It’s a good time to think about what projects to undertake this year. My friend Evan Schneider, who was in the Peace Corps with me in Cameroon, recently bought a house in Portland, Oregon. He and his wife are retired and realized that whatever landscaping they do, they don’t want to wait 20 years for a shade tree to actually produce enough shade for the two of them to sit in the shade all afternoon reading good books.

Trees ready to move

Trees ready to move

In general, I buy the smallest tree available, not the largest. I know that a small tree loses a smaller percentage of its roots when it is dug up for transplanting. Or if it has been growing in a plastic tub, I figure the less time it is in that tub, the less time the roots have to encircle the pot and get tangled. So I was surprised that they had purchased a thirty-foot tall maple tree, and had it installed. I visited them recently, and saw that the tree seems to be thriving.

Evan took me to meet the people who had done the job. The company is called Big Trees Today, in Hillsboro OR, and they specialize in growing big trees in the ground, and then digging them up and installing them. Dan Hickman, the owner, is now in his mid-thirties and is selling some trees that he planted when he was in junior high school (and working for his dad).

Dan said they generally buy small, bareroot trees, plant them in the ground, and then move them 3 times before selling them. After a tree is about 2 inches diameter it is dug up and moved. Digging it up means that the roots are severed, which stimulates new roots to grow and to branch out from the older roots. Then when the trunk is about 5 inches in diameter, it is dug up and moved again. Finally at 9 inches in diameter it is moved for the final time before it is sold. Depending on the kind of tree and how fast it grows, it might be root pruned again without digging it up – by digging down and severing roots.

Tree spade

Tree spade

I once moved a crab apple tree for a woman who had planted it when her son was born. She and her family were moving, and wanted to move the tree, even though her son was, by then, twelve years old (I think). I told her I could do it as a two-step process: First, I would cut the roots along a dotted line about two and a half feet from the trunk. I alternated thrusting the shovel deep into the soil and leaving a shovel-width undisturbed. I did that in the fall, I believe, and then moved the tree the next year. When it was time to dig it up, I dug around the tree three feet from the trunk. That way the previously severed roots had been given time to fork out and grow new feeder roots which were largely undisturbed when I moved it.

Most commercial firms that move trees have a special tractor-mounted tool called a tree spade. It is fitted around the tree and several big blades are hydraulically powered to slice deep into the earth creating a root ball that is shaped a bit like a huge ice cream cone (though not as pointy).

Dan Hickman told me that it is important that the root ball not fall apart during the digging, the transporting, or the planting. His firm is located where the soil is high in clay, which helps the root ball stick together, especially if kept moist. But they also wrap the root ball, first in an open wire cage, then in burlap.

I have seen trees with root balls wrapped in synthetic burlap, which must be removed at planting time. I once dug up a tree that was 7 years old and was not growing well, only to find that its roots were encased in burlap that had not broken down. Dan Hickman said the burlap they use disintegrates in 3 to 4 months, and they leave it in place. Only after it is planted do they cut away any burlap they can at the soil surface. Me? I’ve always removed the burlap.

Crater left by tree spade

Crater left by tree spade

I asked Dan what was the biggest tree he ever moved. He told me that they once moved an historic camperdown elm (Ulmus glabra ‘Camperdownii’) that was 106 years old but in the way of an upcoming building project. It had a rootball 16 feet wide and it weighed 73,000 pounds – over 36 tons! He and his crew root pruned it in the spring, and then dug it up and moved it in the fall. It is doing fine.

What else should you know about buying a big tree? Find a company that has plenty of experience. A company that has invested in a tree spade is probably a good bet, though it can be done by hand. Be sure to have the tree planted at the right depth – you will want it to sit with its trunk flare exposed, not buried.

Set up a watering system so that your big tree never gets thirsty. Digging a big tree severs roots, even if it has been root pruned and has a compact root system. A transplanted tree has fewer root hairs to pick up water and minerals. It makes sense to use a timer that will turn on your watering system on a schedule. You can use a soaker hose or an irrigation system with emitters to deliver the water. It will require more water in the heat of August than in the spring or fall, so will have to adjust it accordingly.

Finally, create a “donut” of bark or wood chips around the tree, covering the roots, but not touching the trunk. Mulch will keep down weeds and grass, and keep those dudes with weed whackers away from the trunk. You don’t want the bark damaged, and string trimmers or lawnmowers can be lethal.

So I’ve re-thought my position about planting big trees. I’m not exactly a spring chicken anymore, so if I want to see another mature tree on my property, I’ll consider buying a big tree. And maybe even having an expert – with the right tools – install it.

Henry lives in Cornish Flat, NH and is a UNH Master Gardener. His Web site is He is the author of 5 books.

Being Healthy: Growing and Eating Food That is Safe

          We’ve come a long way from the day when most families grew their own vegetables and had a few chickens and a cow. From the day when fertilizer was manure of some sort, and when bug control was largely picking off the slugs and bugs. My mom (Elfrieda Lenat, 1916-2009) grew up like that. As a boy we grew a lot of our own organic vegetables, but lacked the farm animals- even though I longed to raise some chickens.

          Since my mom’s youth much has changed at the grocery store, too. We are buying more processed foods, foods that contain corn and soy products grown with genetically modified organisms (GMO’s). We are buying produce that has been sprayed with pesticides and grown with chemical fertilizers. The fresh fruits and vegetables from the

store are, we assume, safe to eat. This is America, after all, where our government looks out for us.

But the government is not able to test every box of strawberries or bag of apples to see if there are harmful chemicals in the fruit. According to recent government statistics, the Department of Agriculture tests about one tenth of one percent of fresh produce coming into the country for chemical residues, and less than one percent of our American-grown fruits and vegetables.

We all know that any food identified with a green sticker that says USDA certified organic does not include genetically modified ingredients, and that any sprays have been approved by OMRI, the organic certifying board – though some can still be strong natural pesticides from plants, for example. What about “natural” or “all natural” labels? They have no regulatory meaning. Our own home grown food? If you don’t use chemicals anywhere on the property, those are safe.

Veggies fresh from the garden are healthy and safe

Veggies fresh from the garden are healthy and safe

But organic food is more expensive, and sometimes we have to make choices. According to the non-profit organization, Green America, the 10 fresh vegetables and fruits you should buy organic at the grocery store are: apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, raspberries, spinach and strawberries. Save that list, and bring it with you the next time you go to the grocery store – or memorize it. And you can trust your local farmer using an Integrated Pest Management program (IPM) to have safe, fresh food in season, too. Just ask about IPM at the farm stand next summer.

So for example, conventional strawberries from California are big and beautiful – and available almost all year round. But the California growers have lobbied successfully with our government, and they have a loophole in the law. They are allowed to use methyl bromide, a fumigant that they pump into the soil, and then seal it in with a layer of plastic. This kills every living thing, including the fungus called Fusarium wilt that can wipe out a crop of strawberries. Most other countries have banned methyl bromide for its toxicity and for what it does to our ozone layer. But money talks, and lobbyists prevail. Me? I won’t buy strawberries from California, or eat them even if they’re served as a garnish out of season (meaning they are probably from California.)

But let’s go back to corn and soy, which are found in virtually all processed foods from sodas and chips to frozen pizza and turkey pot pies. Virtually all non-organic corn and soy is GMO and is resistant to a chemical herbicide, glyphosate, commonly sold as ‘Roundup’. Roundup makes farming easier and cheaper – by eliminating weeds. So corn and soy fields are sprayed with glyphosate to kill weeds, and the grains are not harmed. But glyphosate is taken up by the corn and soy, so it ends up in our food.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers glyphosate safe to use, and the USDA not monitor glyphosate levels in food. Nor does the manufacturer have to say what the “inert” ingredients are in the product, as this information is consider a trade secret. But inert does not necessarily mean inert to us or the environment. Inert to the EPA just means those ingredients do not play a role in killing weeds. Since we don’t know what they are, I want to avoid them.

But here is what makes me most nervous about ingesting glyphosate: even though it does not affect my metabolism directly, it does affect the bacteria which play an important part in my good health. The same metabolic pathway that allows Roundup to kill weeds is an important metabolic pathway in bacteria. So I won’t use glyphosate too kill weeds, and try to avoid food that has been treated with it. That means avoiding processed food.

What about conventional meats, milk and eggs? Glyphosate is showing up there, too, because animals are fed GMO corn as feed – which is treated with glyphosate. So unless you buy organic meats or know that your local farmer is not using feed with GMO corn in it, you can ingest glyphosate from your meat. If you buy your meats at your local farmers market, you can ask your farmers what they feed their animals.

So, as we head into the season for starting seedlings indoors, think about expanding your vegetable garden to include more food that you can store for winter use – or just enjoy fresh off the vine in summer. If you grow your own vegetables, you can insure that your food is safe – and chemical free. I do it, and it feels good.

Henry’s web site is He is the author of 4 gardening books and a fantasy-adventure for children about a boy and a cougar.

The Spring Flower Shows

I’m a little spoiled this winter: I got to go to Maui in January for 10 days. You would think that I’d be ready for all the icy roads and driveways, having been given some respite. But I’m not. I want more warm sunny days. But I know the cure: the spring flower shows. I’ll go to as many as I can. Here’s this year’s lineup.


The first is the New Hampshire Orchid Society’s “Orchid Fantasy Escape” in Nashua, NH at the Radisson Hotel from February 13 to 15. Admission is just $10, $8 for seniors and free for kids under 12. I think getting kids interested in orchids is a good idea and will try to get my grandchildren to accompany me. George, age 11, already collects succulents, and may find orchids even better. Or perhaps Casey, who loves anything pink, will be the orchid fan. For more info:


Rhode Island Show

Rhode Island Show

Next up is the Rhode Island Flower Show February 19-22 at the RI Convention Center in downtown Providence. This is always one of my favorite shows because it has something new each year, along with favorite displays like the sand sculpture and the displays by the Carnivorous Plant Society and the RI Wild Plant Society. I love the competition among flower arrangers – one year they had a competition for best bikini made of leaves and flowers (on mannequins)!


Admission to the Providence Show is $19 for adults, $16 for seniors and $7 for children 7 to 12. I like being there on Thursday or Friday as the floor is less crowded than on the weekend. And for me, one of the best parts of the show are the educational workshops. This year Barbara Damrosch, author of The Garden Primer, a great basic gardening text, will be lecturing on Thursday and Friday. I’m not presenting there this year, maybe next year. For more, go to


Rhode Island Flower Show sand sculpture

Rhode Island Flower Show sand sculpture

That same weekend is the Connecticut Flower & Garden Show at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford. This year’s theme is “The Spirit of Spring” with over 300 booths, great landscape displays and over 80 educational workshops. Admission is $16 for adults, $4 for kids 5 to 12, and $14 for seniors over 62 on Thursday and Friday. If you are traveling from out of state, think about combining the Rhode Island and Connecticut shows with an overnight in one town or the other. For info,


Then comes the Vermont Flower Show on February 27 to March 1, one of my favorites. I like that the main landscape display is a collaborative effort, and that the show has many interesting events for children, including a model train display. It is held in the Champlain Valley Exposition Hall in Essex Junction. Tickets are $ 15, or $12 for seniors (age 60) and $3 for kids 3 to 17. For more info, go to


Although Ringling Brothers circus claimed to be the Greatest Show on Earth, the honor should go to the Philadelphia Flower Show, which this year is from February 28 to March 8. Held each year in the Pennsylvania Convention Center, more than 250,000 visitors will walk through the 33 acres of show. Tickets are expensive – $32 for an adult, $27 if bought in advance. Even kids are $17. Still, you gotta see it at least once. Info at


This year I hope to make it to the Portland Flower Show as I’ve never gotten to it and hear it’s nice. This year’s theme is “A Taste of Spring” and will be March 5 to March 8 at 58 Fore Street. Tickets are $15. More info at


Boston is another grand event held this year March 11 to 15 at the Seaport World Trade Center. The theme this year is “Season of Enchantment”, which will bring out the magic of flowers by top ranked garden designers and floral arrangers from all over New England. Like all the big shows, I recommend going on a weekday, as it can get pretty crowded. Tickets are $20, or $17 over age 65.


I called my friend Jill Nooney who has competed at the Boston Flower Show several times. She said she usually spent about 9 months giving birth to her displays – growing the materials needed for them, and putting it all together. And although she has created amazing displays and won blue ribbons, all she really got out if it was bragging rights. So she’s not competing this year. Still, if you want to do a display, go to the show, and start your planning now for next year. For more info:


After a short break, the next show is the Seacoast Home and Garden Show at the Whittemore Center Arena in Durham, NH on March 28 and 29. This show will have 225 exhibitors showcasing their products and services. Seminars and a “Meet the Chef” program round out the schedule. Tickets are $8, just $6 over 65 years of age. More info at


There’s not much info yet on the last show, in Bangor. Just that it’s April 11 and 12 at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor and the theme this year is “Naturally Nautical”. For info later,


We can’t all escape the snow and cold, but we can get a day’s vacation from it – at a flower show. And it’s cheaper than therapy!


Henry Homeyer is the author of 4 gardening books and a UNH master Gardener. His web site is





How Do We Encourage a New Generation of Gardeners?

Posted on Wednesday, January 21, 2015 · Leave a Comment 

I learned to love gardening from my grandfather, John Lenat. He introduced me to his garden and fed me tasty things right from it. He never made me weed – a sure way to discourage young gardeners. But in today’s world, many children don’t have a special person to teach them to garden, or a place to garden. Many have never planted a seed or eaten a carrot or tomato in the garden.

Maybe we need to look at our schools as venues for education about more than the core curriculum. I mean, which is more important? Knowing that 7 times 9 is 56? (Or 63!) Or teaching our children to garden and to appreciate fresh food that they have grown? In terms of health and longevity in this day of fast food and prepared junk food, should we not be teaching our children good eating habits as well as math? I recently visited a school where all the kids love veggies and fruits – food that they have grown there at the school.

The school garden at Haiku

The school garden at Haiku

The public elementary school in the town of Haiku on Maui, Hawaii has included gardening in their educational program. Each child gets twenty weeks of gardening instruction each year, one hour per week for 10 weeks in two different seasons. The school enrollment is about 440 students in grades K-5. The class I visited in the garden had about 25 children, and was taught by a half-time gardening teacher, Crystal Summers.

Ms. Summers was helped on the day I visited by the second grade teacher, Joan Junger, and a volunteer whom the kids called “Uncle Steve”. A class of 25 needs extra adults if each child is going to do meaningful work in the garden. Parent and community participation has been key to success of the gardening program in Haiku, and, according to Ms. Summers, “You have to have a principal who is on board.” Fortunately, in Haiku, they do.

On the day I visited, the children each participated in 3 activities. In one group they each planted a six-pack of marigolds with seeds saved from their garden. They had planted seeds before, and most knew just what to do. These marigolds will be sold in April when they have a flower festival at the school that will raise money for the garden.

The second activity was weeding. The kids were just back from vacation, and weeds had popped up in the walkways while they were away. The children used simple dandelion weeders and dug up shoots of new grass that had grown in their absence. Since they were all doing it together, and they only had to weed for about 10 minutes, the children did not seem to consider it drudgery.

Beets at school garden

Beets at school garden

The last activity was picking beans. They had a huge bush of “gondule beans”, also called pigeon peas, that had both ripe and green pods. Each second grader was given a pair of scissors and asked to cut and sort the beans. Green pods went in one basket, dry in another. The fresh pods were cut up and eaten by the children at the end of class, along with tiny pieces of a fresh radish that had been harvested that day.

Eating the garden produce is an important part of each visit to the garden. The children are learning not just growing, but the enjoyment of fresh veggies – even if, like the radish, the food has a taste that is different from what they are accustomed to.

One of the things the children like best are the green smoothies they make with garden produce. The principal donated a blender to the program, and Ms. Summers uses it to make smoothies. In the blender goes kale and other greens from the garden, and fruit from the garden or donated by parents. They are lucky – they can grow papayas and bananas right there at the perimeter of the garden.

So how does all this translate for New England school gardens? Because of our climate, we have a much shorter growing season – but now is the time to think about it. First of all, get your principal and parent-teacher organization interested. For example, the garden in Haiku had wood-sided raised beds, which is a good idea, but an initial investment. Fund raisers to get materials for the program would be a big help as most school budgets are already tight.

Next, get the school board interested and committed to it. Getting a teacher or teacher aid assigned to the program would be a big help – but also a budget line item. Although a program could be initiated and run a volunteer or Master Gardener, it would best to have a paid gardening teacher who can work with the kids of all grades. That gardening teacher can also link what is happening in the garden with what is being taught in the classroom. Gardening has the potential to increase math and language arts skills if integrated into a comprehensive program.

There are plenty of fast-growing greens that can be planted in early spring and harvested before school lets out in June. I love the idea of green smoothies – blending lettuce or spinach with bananas and apples, for example. They are delicious and healthy. And yes, someone needs to buy the fruit here in New England, but if we can get our kids craving healthy foods instead of fat and sugar-loaded snacks, we can, perhaps, set a life-long habit that will make a difference.

I feel so lucky to have spent part of my vacation in Maui visiting a school that really is doing more than teaching the 3 R’s. And I hope we can do more here – even if we can’t raise our own bananas.

Henry Homeyer is a lifelong organic gardener and the author of 4 gardening books. His web site is

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Learning and Helping as We Travel

Posted on Wednesday, January 14, 2015 · Leave a Comment 

          When I packed my bags to go to Maui recently I thought about packing my CobraHead weeder. But in the rush of getting ready I neglected to do so. I wish I had. That’s right, I like to garden even when I go on vacation. There are always opportunities to help out, and to learn. A winter vacation in a warm place can offer more than just a tan and some relaxation.


A friend told me about an organic farm on Maui that serves developmentally disabled adults and sells organic fruits and vegetables to the community. I called the farm and offered a day of help; my three traveling companions accompanied me. It was a wonderful day – and helped me to feel a little less guilty about the carbon emissions of that big silver bird that brought me to Maui.


Lokelani Ohana Farm

Lokelani Ohana Farm

Lokelani ‘Ohana Farm is unlike any I have visited before. It is just over an acre in size and produces 10 kinds of bananas including thumb-sized bananas and “apple” bananas, my favorites. Apple bananas are half the size of bananas we know from the store with a rich flavor that makes ordinary bananas seem as bland as Wonder Bread. There had been a severe tropical storm just before we had arrived on Maui, and some of the banana plants had blown down. We helped by cutting up downed stalks and lugging them off to compost piles. And I got to do some weeding – while it was 20 below back home.


Lokelani Farm is a “vibrant sustainable ‘Ohana where “people with   disabilities live, learn and work together with reverence for spirit, creativity and nature, supporting each other’s potential and sharing a life of purpose.”, according to the vision statement in their brochure.


Christina Chang, the director of the farm and programs, told me that the programs have been in existence just since 2005 and are modeled on the Camp Hill initiative of Pennsylvania. Camp Hill has farms and programs that serve developmentally disabled adults in several locations in the northeast. Their farm programs are organic and biodynamic. At Lokelani adults participants learn not only how to garden, but also Saori weaving and other craft skills, and develop better social skills.


So if you wish to help out for a day or more on your next vacation, how should you find a good place to do so? Before heading off to Florida or Nassau or France, do a little research on the internet. Twice before this experience I have worked on farms, once in France and once in the Hebrides off Scotland. Both allowed me to learn as well as to help.


In my previous experiences I had joined the WWOOFer program: World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. It matches up volunteers with organic farms for short term work experiences. I worked about a week on each of the farms where I “woofed”; some farms have restrictions about how long a worker must stay and help – a week or a month minimum, for example. In general, woofers get room and board provided and work 4 to 6 hours a day, five days a week. Lokelani had 3 woofers working on the farm the day we were there, but we were not a part of the official WWOOFer program. In general other woofers that I have met have been in their twenties and thirties, but there are no age restrictions.


In order to see what is available, go to the website The website will not give you farm locations or contact info – they want you to pay first to join – but you can see what sorts of jobs and farm placements are available before you join. In the United States the fee to become a WWOOFer is $40. In France it is 25 Euros.


You need to join the WWOOF organization for the country you are interested in – you cannot join once for all of Europe, for example. The web site allows you to sort the farms according to your requirements for length of stay, accommodations, type of food provided. Thus you can select omnivore, vegetarian or vegan diet, and only farms that can provide that will show up on your search.


I also found that there are other organic farms on Maui, some of which provide accommodations and the opportunity to learn and take classes. So you don’t have to sign up to be a woofer if you want to spend some time gardening in winter.


So what did I learn at Lokelani that day? I learned that bananas are incredibly resilient. Cut off the top of the plant, and the roots and base will generate a new stem. The leaves make a great mulch – they will block out sunshine and hold down weeds. I learned what a breadfruit tree (and the fruit) look like, and what macadamia nuts look like right from the tree. I met some very interesting people. I learned that Lokelani is a wonderful non-profit ( that is trying to not only help adults with disabilities, but to help the broader community to accept and understand the special love and creativity of people with disabilities.


So think about spending some time on a farm next time you vacation. I’m glad I did.


Henry Homeyer is not answering gardening questions this week. His Web site is He is the author of 4 gardening books.


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The Wild Wisdom of Weeds

Posted on Wednesday, January 7, 2015 · Leave a Comment 

          This is the time of year when I find the time to read gardening books. I recently settled in by the woodstove with The Wild Wisdom of Weeds: 13 Essential Plants for Human Survival by Katrina Blair (Chelsea Green, 2014, $29.95 in paper). I was intrigued when I read, in the Forward by Sandor Katz, that “Most of us can identify many more corporate logos than plants.” Huh. That’s not true for you and me – as gardeners we know many plants. But overall? It probably is true. Katrina Blair wants all of us to recognize and use a few common weeds in our daily life.

Katrina Blair book

Katrina Blair book

Katrina Blair has selected 13 weeds that are found pretty much everywhere in the world, including some that grow in Antarctica. These weeds follow humans, growing in disturbed areas and surviving even where our domesticated plants will not. She selected these weeds because they can be used as food and medicine. She notes that “The wild greens outside are still vibrating with the life force and are at their peak nutritional potency.”

Of the thirteen, everyone knows dandelions, clover, thistle and grass. Others like chickweed, lambsquarter and mustard you have certainly seen, but may not know by name. A few of the others are common, but less well recognized. Most of us do not think of weeds as food or medicine. Maybe it’s time to expand our view of them.

Why eat weeds? Blair states that weeds are very nutrient-rich. She points out that they require no fertilizer or pesticides to thrive. Weeds are available locally and are very good at picking up a wide range of minerals from out soil – whereas crops that are grown year after year in commercial agriculture plots may lack trace minerals.

Blair states that grasses can pick up 92 minerals out of the 102 available in healthy soils. Getting as many vitamins and minerals from fresh plants as possible makes sense to me. Weeds can provide a good source of minerals.

Where to harvest, when to harvest and how to use weeds are important questions that Blair answers in her book. She explains that picking wild greens from areas where chemicals have been applied is not a good policy. That includes commercial agriculture fields. But your own gardens? No problem. And she noted that picking in spring and early summer is best, when leaves and stems are less tough and bitter. She dries fresh weeds to use later in powders she uses in green drinks.

How to use these weeds is a major focus of the book, which supplies recipes such as dock mustard pretzels, spouted lambsquarter tabouli and mallow milk shakes. Many of the recipes take considerable time to prepare (and to harvest). Blair is a fanatic about eating weeds, so she doesn’t mind spending the time to collect seeds from wild plants, and then grinding them, and finally away winnowing the chaff before using.

       The wild ingredients, the weeds, are just one component of most of the recipes provided. So, for example, she will eat a healthy breakfast cereal (presumably from her local health food store) that she supplements with weed seeds she harvested. Or she will make bread using wheat flower but add some ground weed seeds.

Clover and Dandelions are full lof healthy minerals

Clover and Dandelions are full lof healthy minerals

Katrina Blair is also happy to sit on the ground and pick and eat wild grasses and clover flowers. She notes that our digestive system cannot breakdown cellulose. But grass stalks, when young, are edible. Just chew the stems for a long time to break the cell walls and then savor the fresh juices and chlorophyll. She spits out the indigestible fibers.

I recently became a fan of “green smoothies” and often prepare one for my breakfast. In a good high-speed blender I mix leafy greens, fruit, ginger, freshly squeezed lime juice and water or green tea. I like the idea of adding some wild weed leaves to the blender (in season). Dandelion leaves, for example, are pretty bitter unless picked before the plants have blossomed in the early spring. But mixed into a smoothie with a banana and some apple probably would enrich my diet without offending my tender tongue.

It is important to note that not all weeds are edible. Before ingesting weeds in quantity, she recommends eating a little bit, and listening to your body’s response. She says her body will tell her not to eat many leaves from even her favorite weeds if they are too high in oxalic acid, for example. She notes that juicers can concentrate and extract things like oxalic acid, giving you too high a dose if you drink too much, particularly late in the season when levels are high in leaves.

I recommend only eating weeds that you have positively identified. Her book has plenty of photographs, but nothing beats a good plant book with a botanic key for identifying them. There may be a forager in your neighborhood, too. Many emigrants have learned to identify and use wild plants in their native lands, and find them here, too. If you see someone foraging, introduce yourself and start learning.

Although Kristina Blair feels confident to set off on a 3-day hike without food, I am not. Foraging can be a nice supplement to my diet, but I will never depend on weeds as a major component of my diet. But if you need weeds for your diet, my garden usually has plenty!

Henry Homeyer’s web site is He lives in Cornish Flat, NH and is the author or 4 gardening books.

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One Gardener’s Plans for the New Year

Posted on Wednesday, December 31, 2014 · Leave a Comment 

Each year after the winter solstice I take some time to think about my garden of the past year and to make plans for the upcoming garden season. What worked? What didn’t? It’s good to think about such. I won’t say I’m making any gardening resolutions this year, but I’ll share with you my aspirations. But I won’t feel bad if I don’t accomplish exactly what I hope to do. Each year life has a way of getting in the way of best made plans.


Garden arbor needs some work

Garden arbor needs some work

The past year was a good one for me. In past years my vegetable garden has been getting shadier – trees have a way of getting bigger, and even relatively distant trees have been cutting down on the hours of sunshine in the garden. This past year I was lent a nice plot in full sun, a plot with good soil that belongs to a friend and that had been farmed organically. It was bigger than I needed, but a farmer agreed to till it and get it ready for planting. So my partner Cindy Heath and I planted all kinds of veggies including sweet corn and dry beans – crops I hadn’t had room for in past years. And we planted extra food to give away.



          Our vegetables did well. There was sufficient rain and perhaps because the land had been fallow for a year or more, pests and disease problems were minimal. Even the potato bugs were few. We fenced off the beans (both dry and green, both loved by deer), and the raccoons didn’t do much damage to the corn. We had plenty for us, our friends, and the coons. (Maybe the coyote urine I put out in little Airwick containers helped keep the coons away).


      So will I plant the “farmette” (as we called it) again this year? You betcha. It was a lot of work, but I really enjoyed having as much space as I wanted in full sun. I love having excess vegetables to share, and my little farmette allows me to do that.


 My grandfather, John Lenat (1885-1967), had a regular vegetable route in his later years. He drove around his town (Spencer, Massachusetts) in his bright red Nash Rambler giving tomatoes, lettuce and cucumbers to his friends. He’d never accept a nickel for his produce. I remember being amused that he even brought tomatoes to give the checkout clerk at the A&P Grocery store. In those days there were no soup kitchens or homeless shelters, but there are now, and they are happy to accept what any of us can contribute.

This year I’ll also plant some flowers at the farmette. A dear friend gave me a gallon Ziploc bag of dried zinnia seed heads from her garden. She tills a patch of soil that is about 4 feet wide and 50 feet long each year just for zinnias. Big, tall, brightly colored zinnias. And each year she harvests enough seeds in the fall to plant it again – and to give away plenty, too. So I shall try the same.


 I looked in my Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog to see what zinnias might cost in bulk, for those of you who want to try a similar effort. A thousand seeds of the ‘Benary’s Giant Series’, costs $29.30, but the ‘Giant Dahlia Flowered Series’ costs just $12.15 for an ounce that has 3,200 seeds. Since I have never tried a mass planting like that before, I can’t advise you as to how many seeds you might need for a mass planting. I plan to scatter seeds on tilled soil, rake them in, and hope for the best.


 Our farmette is about 6 miles from my house. I’ll plant most of our veggies for canning, freezing and dehydrating over there. But I’ll also continue to grow some veggies at my home garden, focusing on things that do well with less than full sun: lettuce, kale, herbs, leeks, carrots, and Brussels sprouts. I’ll also plant a few tomatoes and summer squash at my home garden for the convenience of being able to pick them for dinner.


           This year I’ll try to slow down a little, too. By the time planting season comes I’ll be 69 years young. And although I’ve been gardening for others for a long time, I think I’ll try to minimize the time I spend in other people’s gardens this coming year. Become more of an advisor, and less of a digger, weeder and wheelbarrow pusher. I’ll try to focus on my own gardens, given that I have expanded them.


 What else will I do in 2015? I’ll work hard at controlling the invasive plants that are always trying to get a foothold. Just cutting back purple loosestrife 3 times in the summer will do much to keep it from expanding its territory. And I’ll keep an eye out for garlic mustard, which so far has not made it on to my property, but is within a mile of my house.


The list could go on and on. Re-build the garden arbor that has started to fall apart. Dig out some of the biggest goldenrod that I (foolishly) have allowed to get too rambunctious. Try new kinds of flowers. Plant some early-season raspberries that will be done by the time that new kind of fruit fly arrives in late summer. And so on.


 So take some time in your easy chair and make your own plans. And feel free to share them with me if you like, I’m always happy to get mail or e-mail. Maybe you’ll inspire me to try something new. My best to you all for 2015.


 Contact Henry by e-mail at or write the old fashioned way to P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746. Please include a self-addressed stamped envelope if you have a question you want answered.

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Eating from the Garden

Posted on Wednesday, December 24, 2014 · Leave a Comment 


          Here it is, officially winter, and I’m still eating from my garden. I recently made what I call a winter salad: grated carrot and celery root (also known as celeriac) with a vinaigrette sauce. Sometimes my winter salad also gets grated or chopped apple, or some dried cherry tomatoes. Only the ingredients for dressing are bought – vinegar and oil – though I have been known to even make my own vinegar some years. Of course dried currants or raisins are also nice in that salad, but I don’t grow those. I could put in dried blueberries, as I do dry a few each year, but haven’t tried them in the salad yet.




Celeriac is an unsung hero. Most gardeners don’t grow it. Most gardeners should. It’s a root crop related to celery, has a similar flavor, and the leaves are nearly identical. Unlike most root crops, the bulk of this root sits up above the ground level. The meat of this vegetable has the consistency of a carrot, but it is white and round. Mine grow to be 3 to 6 inches in diameter.


          Celeriac stores well and stays tasty for months. In the fall I cut off the tops, cut back most of the roots, and wash out the dirt from the thick mass of roots. Then it will store for 3 to 4 months in a cool place with high humidity. You could do this by putting the celeriac in a plastic bin or bucket and storing it a cool place that stays in the 33 to 50 degree range. To keep the humidity high you can put an inch of moist sand in the bottom of the bucket.


          Another way to store celeriac, carrots, potatoes, kohlrabi and rutabagas is to get an old fridge. Often older model fridges are available free from on-line list serves – or even in your daily newspaper. That’s how I got a 1946 GE model that still works fine, and it does not have the undesirable “frost free” feature. Modern refrigerators remove the humidity from all but the vegetable drawers. But many older ones do not, and thus are great for filling up with storage vegetables. Or, one can store veggies in modern fridges in plastic bags that have been punched with many holes using a paper punch.


View of interior of celeriac

View of interior of celeriac

Unfortunately, many garden centers do not sell celeriac seedlings in the spring. So if you want to grow celeriac, you may want to order seeds this winter when you put together you seed order. I start them indoors, starting in early- to mid- March. They are a bit slow to germinate, and need consistent moisture from planting to harvest. They don’t like cold weather or soil in the spring, so I transplant them into the ground in June.


Celeriac needs soil that doesn’t dry out. Sandy soils do not hold moisture well, while heavier, clay-based soils do. If you have a light, sandy soil, do not grow celeriac in raised beds, as raised beds tend to drain off and dry out more quickly. And add lots of compost to the soil before planting, as compost tends to act a bit like a sponge, holding water.


In addition to using celeriac in my winter salad, I use celeriac in stir fries, soups and stews. It adds a celery flavor – and a richness – that I like. And I haven’t had much luck growing celery. When I’ve tried in the past, I had trouble with slugs, the stems have been spindly, and celery in general does not store as well as celeriac.


My friend Ed Smith of Cabot, Vermont, is the author of a number of excellent gardening books, including The Vegetable Gardener’s Container Bible. I called him recently to see how he grows celery, as I recalled that he does well with it. He told me that new no longer grows celery in the ground. He only grows it in self-watering containers.


Ed told me that he gets containers from Gardeners Supply ( that are roughly 3-feet square and 12 inches deep. At the bottom of each container is a reservoir that holds a couple of inches of water separated from the soil mix by a plastic barrier; it has a wicking system that keeps the soil consistently moist, but not soggy. In his big container he plants 18 to 20 plants, and puts it in full sun.


For a soil mix Ed uses a 50-50 mix of compost and peat moss, and he adds a cup of organic fertilizer and usually some Azomite. Azomite is a rock powder sold in 50-lb bags that has trace minerals not found in fertilizers.


The key to success with celery, according to Ed, is to keep it consistently moist and pick it small. Don’t wait until your celery looks like the stuff from the grocery store, pick it when the stalks are small, say half an inch in diameter. He doesn’t usually start his own plants as they take a long time to grow, but buys plants from a greenhouse. Ed told me that he chops up his celery and freezes it in pint zipper bags. Then he uses is all year in soups and stews. He does not blanch it before freezing.


It is winter now, but not too early to start planning your garden for 2015. Read the seed catalogs, dream, and before you know it, it will be time to start next year’s seedlings.


Henry Homeyer is the author of 4 gardening books. His web site is


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Posted on Wednesday, December 17, 2014 · Leave a Comment 

          I like poinsettias and buy one every year. And every year the poinsettia industry produces new colors and shapes for the “flowers”. Standard red has given way to pink, maroon, white and red, pink and red; simple bracts are now double, double with ruffles. There is always a call for the new and different. Me? I’m a simple gardening guy who likes the simple old fashioned kind.


Botanically speaking, those red parts of a poinsettia are actually called bracts. The flowers are the tiny yellow center of each “flower”, and the red bracts are leaves purely for decoration – and an advertisement to any stray pollinator (or shopper) that might be around.


Poinsettias are native to Mexico, and were first introduced to the United States in 1828 by President Andrew Jackson’s ambassador to Mexico, Joel Poinsett. But they have traveled the world. When I was working in Bamako, Mali, West Africa, in the early 1980’s, I had hedges of poinsettias that were five feet tall. But it took a long time for poinsettias to become popular.


Poinsettia Open House Photo by D.S. Cole Growers

Poinsettia Open House Photo by D.S. Cole Growers

In 1923 a grower named Paul Ecke started growing them in quantity in California, selling plants wholesale and shipping them by rail all over the country. He worked on growing good, durable plants that he sent to growers so that they could start cuttings and make more plants. He was a trained horticulturist, but also a good marketer. He gave free plants to TV hosts like Johnny Carson and Bob Hope for his Christmas Special every year. Through the magic of TV he got Americans to associate the idea of Christmas with poinsettias.


One reason that poinsettias are so popular is that they are easy to keep looking nice – even those folks with “brown thumbs” can keep them going for a couple of weeks or more. They are almost like plastic plants. And most of us feel no guilt about throwing them out when they start to look ratty.


If you’ve never offered a home to a poinsettia, here’s what you need to do: Water it once a week, give it some indirect light, and avoid placing it in a cold or drafty place. Temperatures of 68 to 72 are recommended, but my house is rarely that warm, and they do fine for me. And don’t put it on top of a radiator or anywhere where it will get too hot and dry out too quickly.


The worst thing you can do for a poinsettia is to overwater it. Too much water will rot the roots, and your holiday plant will go into a decline and die. I lift the pot and can tell by its weight whether it needs water or not. But you can stick your finger in the soil, too. If it is wrapped in foil, make a hole in the bottom so that excess water can drain into the saucer.


Getting poinsettias to bloom in their second year is complicated, and not worth the effort for most of us. One must give them bright light during the day, and no light at all for 12 hours or more – which means moving them into a closet or basement, and remembering not to turn on the light. I have read figures citing 5 days of dark treatment as adequate, but also up to 10 weeks of dark from 5pm to 8am. Who knows? I once read read that a big grower had trouble getting his plants to develop their red leaves simply because he had a night watchman who liked plants and shined his flashlight around the greenhouse on his nightly rounds.


My mother, may she rest in peace, never had poinsettias because she believed, mistakenly, that they were poisonous. She feared that her cat would eat a leaf and die. I told her that was not the case, but she was a worrier, and wouldn’t take a chance with her dear cat, Bella (may she, too, rest in peace).


Ohio State University in cooperation with the Society of American Florists did a study that proved that poinsettias are not the threat my mom believed they were. Yes, they are in the genus Euphorbia, a group of plants that have alkaloids in their white sap. But the sap is not very toxic. According to the Mayo Clinic web site, poinsettias are not good to eat, and might cause a tummy ache or a rash, but unless you are allergic to them, nothing serious is likely to happen if you make them part of your lunch. Or your cat’s lunch.


From a Darwinian point of view, it might make sense for a plant to make itself poisonous, or at least unpleasant to eat. After all, plants want to reach maturity and produce seeds, allowing their genetic material to be passed on to the next generation. They don’t want all their leaves to be eaten before maturity. But the bottom line is, feed your cat well, and she probably won’t even get a tummy ache from nibbling your poinsettia.


So get yourself a poinsettia. They will provide some nice color on your table for the holidays. Just don’t water it too much.


Henry Homeyer is the author of 4 gardening books. His Web site is

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Kissing Balls

Posted on Wednesday, December 10, 2014 · Leave a Comment 


          At this time of year I need all the help I can get. Cloudy gray days do not make me cheerful. Days that end at 4pm do not please me. I counteract the dark with lights, flowers on the table, greenery (and maybe a little chocolate). This year I decided to make a kissing ball to hang from my chandelier in the living/dining area.


Kissing Ball

Kissing Ball

Kissing balls have a long history. During the Middle Ages villagers would hang balls of evergreens with a clay figure representing the Baby Jesus inside. Later, during the Victorian era, people would poke greens, particularly sweet-smelling greens, into apples or a potatoes and them and hang them in the house.


But they fell into disfavor, and mistletoe remained as the primary green hung in the house during much of the 1900’s. Mistletoe, of course allowed high-spirited youth to steal a kiss if a maiden was “accidentally” standing under the mistletoe. In this day of lawyers, no one wants to sell mistletoe because the berries are quite poisonous. But now decorated evergreen balls are back, being sold as kissing balls. I recently made one.


When I made my plans I didn’t think of an apple or a potato as the center of the ball. I bought a grapefruit and a large orange. But ultimately I decided I needed something longer lasting, and went to my local garden center to see if I could buy a ball of “Oasis”. Florists use Oasis to hold flowers and greens in place in arrangements while allowing them to absorb water. No one had balls of Oasis for sale, so I bought a 3 by 9-inch block.


I started the project by getting a variety of greens. I bought a small bundle of boxwood and cut branches of balsam fir, white pine, evergreen azalea and rhododendron.


Boxwood is loved by many gardeners: it is well behaved, slow-growing and has very small evergreen leaves that are a shiny green all year. They make great miniature hedges. I have avoided it because in the old days it was marginally hardy here. Now we have varieties that sneer at temperatures of 25 below and colder. Korean boxwood varieties such as Green Gem, Green Velvet and Green Mountain shouldn’t suffer winter burn or winter kill.


Oasis ball doesn't have to be perfect

Oasis ball doesn’t have to be perfect

Oasis is very easy to cut. I used a long serrated bread knife, but you could use any knife. I soaked the sphere in water for 15 minutes or so, rotating it a few times and holding it under water so the entire thing would be well soaked. Then I took an old fashioned wire coat hanger and cut out a section. I kept the top hook portion, one angled side and the bottom wire. I straightened it out with a pair of needle nose pliers, and pushed it through the globe. I then twisted the bottom inch of wire to a right angle, and slipped a big fender washer on it to help support the sphere once I hung it, and to keep the delicate Oasis from being damaged by the wire.


I hung the ball from my chandelier and began the easy part: decorating it. I cut pieces of greenery into roughly 6-inch pieces, and gently poked them into the Oasis. I started at the top, creating concentric circles of white pine, then boxwood, balsam fir, another layer of boxwood, then azalea and rhododendron, and finally finishing up with more boxwood. Once I passed the “equator” I turned the leaves so that the shiny side would be facing down.


I used my pocket knife to shave off needles of the fir (which did not pull off easily), and to remove any lumps in the stems. On thicker branches, I shaved of a little wood to make a thinner branch to poke into the Oasis.


At the very bottom I attached a bow made of red ribbon, wiring it onto the hook at bottom after removing the washer. That insured that the wire would not pull though the Oasis, which is very delicate.


It was gorgeous. A globe of green with a nice variety of textures and colors of green. All it needed was some red berries. So my dog Daphne and I jumped in the car and drove to the nearest swamp. I had put on my tall boots, just in case some wading was required. Little did I know.


Our native holly, which loses its leaves, is called winterberry (Ilex verticillata). In the wild it lives in swamps, but is also a good landscape plant with loads of bright red berries. It is dioecious, meaning it has male and female plants; if you want berries, buy a male to go with your females (one male can service several females).


I cut some branches for my kissing ball and was leaving the swamp when, with a crack, I fell through the ice and water filled my boots. If I’d been captured on camera I might have started a new trend –icy water in boots instead of a bucket of ice water on the head. I laughed. Later, I poked stems of red berries into the kissing ball. It certainly brightens up the room, and I grin when I remember getting those red berries.


Henry Homeyer lives in Cornish Flat, NH. His books are available from his web site, Contact him at or P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746.

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