It’s time to start thinking about the vegetable garden. We had frost recently, and will again, but this is a good time to think about what to plant. I can’t cover all plants I will grow – or have in the past – but I’d like to share a few tips on plants I love, starting with artichoke and going to zucchini.
Twenty years ago it was unheard of to grow artichokes in a New England garden. The first time I grew an artichoke from seed it developed into a huge plant, but didn’t start to produce “chokes” until cold weather came in the fall. So I built a little plastic-sheathed hoop house over it, and harvested my one and only artichoke in October – after snow! The local paper sent a reporter and a photographer.
Here’s what I’ve learned since that first effort: start early. I planted seeds March 3 this year in 6-packs and transplanted seedlings into bigger plastic pots in mid-April. Now the plants have 4 large leaves, and are ready to go to my cold basement (45 degrees) where I will set them up under lights on a timer, giving only 10 hours of light per day for the next10 days. This will fool those poor artichokes into thinking they have gone through a winter. Artichokes, you see, usually only produce in their second year. I’ll plant mine outside in early June. In California, artichokes are perennial – though I’ve never succeeded in overwintering them here.
Now locally grown artichokes are sold at farm and seedlings are sold, too, in case you haven’t started any. They will produce lovely foliage plants – and a few small artichokes. Some farms grow them in unheated greenhouses to stimulate them to produce their first year.
“B” is for beans. There are many varieties; all can be placed in one of two categories: bush beans or pole beans. Bush beans produce a nice yield of beans over a 3 to 4 week period, and are done. Pole beans, once they start producing, will continue to produce some beans until fall – if you keep picking them. Not only that, pole beans are better for casual gardeners, as many varieties still are yummy even if the beans are not picked on time and get large. Bush beans that get large, get woody. My favorite pole bean is ‘Kwintus’ from Cook’s Garden Seeds. ‘Kentucky Wonder’ is also great, and available everywhere.
Beans are legumes, and have nodules in their roots that can harbor nitrogen-fixing bacteria. These bacteria take nitrogen from the atmosphere and fix it in the soil – transforming it into nitrogen useable by plants. Free fertilizer, if you will. You can buy a packet of inoculant at garden centers. Wet your beans at planting time, then sprinkle the inoculant on the beans, and plant. A packet of inoculant will do a lot of beans, but won’t work next year, so share your leftovers with another gardener. And if you don’t get any in time, you can sprinkle it over the soil and water it in.
“B” is also for broccoli. I start mine by seed, but it’s getting a bit late for that now if you want early broccoli. But it is plentiful at garden centers, and quite cold-tolerant once hardened off and well established. You can plant seeds outdoors by seed in mid-July for a fall crop.
My favorite broccoli substitutes are two relatives that don’t ever produce a big head, but are quick-growing and produce very numerous mini-heads, what we would call side-shoots on broccoli. One is called piracicaba, and is available from Hudson Valley Seed Library (www.seedlibrary.org). It’s actually a tropical broccoli, so does well in the heat so summer when many others are feeling wilted and sad.
The other is Happy Rich, a hybrid sold by Johnny’s Selected Seeds (www.johnnyseeds.com). Like piracicaba, it has a lovely flavor – and you can eat the leaves and stems if you are so inclined. It produces all summer and well into the fall.
The last of the “B” vegetables, for today, at least, is Brussels sprouts. This vegetable is not universally well loved – too many cooks and lunch counters over cook it, serving mushy sprouts. But they are wonderful if lightly steamed and served with butter or vinegar.
Some gardeners never get big Brussels sprouts because they let the plants grow taller and taller, putting all their energy into growing tall. So here is what you need to do: cut off the top of the plant in early September. Labor Day at 10 am, to be precise. Cut off the top 3 to 4 inches, which is where upward growth occurs. Then the plant will use its energy to create big sprouts.
Skipping forward to “Z” as promised, my favorite zucchini is one called ‘Romanesco’. It has a striped, ridged exterior and firm flesh that is very tasty. What’s wonderful about it is that, unlike many summer squash and other zucchini, the flesh is still tasty and usable even if the squash goes unnoticed and develops into a big fruit.
Romanesco zucchini plants are rarely found at garden centers, but seeds are readily available. Buy the seeds now, plant outdoors in June or early May indoors in 4-inch pots.
Sorry I skipped a few vegetables in this year’s tips, but there will be more in future columns. Meanwhile, I’m going outside to plant some carrots – they come after the “B’s”.
Read Henry’s blog at https://dailyuv.com/
When I was a boy, I generally bought my mom some pansies in a little wooden box for Mother’s Day. Mom is long gone, but I’ll be thinking of her and all she did for me when Mother’s Day rolls around on May 8. If your mom is a gardener, or just appreciates the beauty of the living world, there are plenty of good gifts for her.
I like giving pansies for Mother’s day for a number of reasons. First, they are cheerful and full of color. And they are hardy, surviving and thriving outdoors even if we get frost. And they look good even without wrapping paper (I am still challenged when it comes to wrappping).
Each pansy plant is relatively small at the beginning of the season, but they will give a nice punch of color even while they are bulking up. Pansy grower Jenny Wright of Unity, NH tells me that pansies “…would rather be in England where it is cold and rainy.” So later, in August, they tend to sulk until fall rains come.
Perennials are good gifts, too. Right now some of my hellebores are blooming. Don’t know hellebores? You should. These early-spring beauties have evergreen leaves and come in a variety of colors from white to pinkish to shades of purple or even green, both as singles and doubles (with extra petals). Hybridizers have been developing new colors because they are relatively fool-proof plants.
Hellebores are plants that do fine in shade, or partial shade. They prefer moist, well-drained soil but will do fine in dry shade, too. In the beginning of spring the evergreen leaves on hellebores look pretty ratty. I’ve cut those back to tidy up the bed, and I see that new leaves are already unfurling. I’d say that by May 1 the hellebores will be looking dramatic.
Another early spring flower that will look good on Mother’s Day has a rather unappealing common name, lungwort. I prefer to call in by its botanical name, the one used by scientists, Pulmonaria. There are actually three species of Pulmonaria but all are very similar. Cold hardy to minus 40 Fahrenheit, they grow in full to partial shade in ordinary garden soil of moderate fertility, but don’t do as well in a very dry location.
Pulmonaria is a good groundcover, one that stays relatively low and spreads by root. The flowers can stand up above the leaves to 8 to 12 inches, but the leaves are low. Most varieties sold have spotted leaves, though I have one, probably Pulmonaria angustifolia, that does not. Mine has absolutely iridescent blue flowers that almost seem to light up at dusk or on a cloudy day.
Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) is a wildflower, but one that is sometimes sold in nurseries. As the name implies, it grows in wet places, even in standing water. It needs a location that is at least moist all year. It is a brilliant yellow flower about 2 inches in diameter. It is hardy to Zone 4, minus 30. It is not related to annual marigolds sold everywhere.
Your mother probably doesn’t have marsh marigolds – most people don’t – so if she has some wet areas near her garden, think about finding one for her. There is a fabulous double variety called ‘Multiplex’ that I planted near my stream last year. I got it at E.C. Brown Nursery in Thetford, VT. The leaves are up, and I can’t wait until the blossoms appear.
Another lesser known plant near my stream is the umbrella plant (Darmera peltata). This blooms in May before the giant leaves appear. It is a native – I have seen it wild along the banks of the Rogue River in Oregon – but it is not native here in the east. The pink flowers appear as drumsticks of florets on a tall stem. The leaves will stand up 2 feet and be 2 feet in diameter later this summer. Available at E.C. Brown Nursery.
I am reluctant to recommend buying a tree or shrub as a gift unless I know the recipient has asked for it. After all, shrubs take up more space than flowers, and generally last longer. But you know Mom best, and if she likes flowering shrubs and has space for more, think about getting the early blooming azalea ‘Cornell Pink’ (Rhododendron mucronulatum).
This shrub blooms before most others (except February Daphne). As the name implies, the blossoms are pink. A nice pink, not garish at all. Its only liability is that it blooms so early that some years a hard frost can ruin the buds, I’m told. It’s never happened to me, or to anyone I know, but the literature always warns about it. The shrub can get large – 8 feet tall and wide, or larger – if not pruned.
If you’d rather not buy plants, think about other things useful to a gardener. A CobraHead weeder (www.cobrahead.com), some nice garden gloves, or perhaps a colorful tubtrug. Trugs, as I call them are handy bucket-substitutes. Unlike the standard 5-gallon pail, these are flexible with 2 soft handles. Easy to pick up with one hand, they come in sizes from very small to quite large (11 gallons). Available at Gardeners Supply (www.gardeners.com), or your local garden center.
Mom, if you’re watching me, I planted some pansies this week. I hope you like them.
Henry Homeyer is blogging at https://dailyuv.com/
Plants are smarter than you think. It’s true that most have a hard time remembering their nine-times tables, and are darned if they know the capitol of Nebraska (though even I might need help from Mrs. Google on that). But, for example, they know spring is on the way – even if they haven’t been outside.
When spring arrives the sun coming in the window is stronger, days are longer, and plant roots are growing. Plants know it’s time for some special care – bigger pots and more water. If you haven’t repotted any houseplants in recent years, you might want to do so now.
There are two schools of re-potting. Some good growers say, “don’t mess with the roots. Just put the plant into the next bigger sized pot, and let its roots find their way into new soil”. The other school of growers say, “tease out the roots and cut them back to encourage them to divide and grow new roots”. I’m in the second school. Especially for large plants that are already in big pots.
I have a hibiscus plant, a small tree, really, that was given to me more than a decade ago. It came in a cheap plastic pot about 14 inches in diameter, and a foot or so deep. Up until very recently it’s been in that same pot. The plant is 6 feet tall, decorated with lights, and blooms regularly – and has for years. This winter blossoms were scarce, so I decided that it was time to give it some new soil, compost and fertilizer.
Over the years my hibiscus has lost a lot of soil – until I re-potted it, the soil surface was 4 inches below the top edge of the pot. Some washed out with watering. Some was taken up by the plant. And some organic matter just oxidized and disappeared. That’s right, organic matter in soil can “burn up” and disappear with time –whether in your garden or in a pot. It’s why adding compost to the soil every year is standard practice in the vegetable garden.
Some big indoor plants develop big, fat roots that encircle the pot if not re-potted. When re-potting those, I get out my root knife or scissors and cut back the roots. Not so this one. It has small, fibrous roots. I teased out the roots with my CobraHead weeding tool and tickled them loose with my fingers. I let the tired old soil fall away.
To re-pot that hibiscus, I slid it out of the pot and placed it on an outdoor table on an old sheet. I removed about half an inch of soil all around the root ball, and even more on the bottom. I cut back the few long roots I came across. Then I measured the root ball. It was just 8 inches from top to bottom. My pot is 12 inches deep, and I wanted an inch of free space at the top. So I added 3 inches of “soil” to the bottom of the pot and gently packed it down.
The soil mix I used was a 50-50 mix of peat-based commercial potting mix and a fluffy light compost I buy by the truckload for my outdoor gardens. I ended up using12 quarts of this mix. I added about a cup of Pro-Gro brand organic, slow-release fertilizer to the bucket of planting mix. And I added half a cup of green sand, a naturally-occurring product that contains potassium and lots of trace minerals. It is mined in New Jersey from what was once an undersea deposit.
After teasing out the roots I placed the root ball back into the pot and filled the space around the edges with my soil mix. I used my fingers and a piece of kindling – a wedge-shaped board that could get almost to the bottom of the pot – to push the mix down the sides of the pot.
Finally, I gave my re-potted hibiscus a good long drink of water. To the water I added Superthrive, which touts itself as “the original vitamin solution.” It contains seaweed extracts and plant hormones, and is very good for stressed plants. It’s very concentrated: half a teaspoon in 2 quarts of water made a very good boost for my plant. I’m a firm believer in the value of Superthrive.
If you’ve been paying attention, you know that most houseplants need more water now than they did in December. Take rosemary, for example. If you brought in your rosemary plant last fall, you probably got into a rhythm: water it every Sunday before church. Or Wednesday after bowling. Or whatever. But you knew it needed the same amount of water every week.
Then, all of a sudden, you might have noticed your rosemary was super dry. In fact, you might have noticed that it was dead. I’ve lost more rosemary plants in March and April than at any other time. A totally dry rosemary is a dead rosemary. So if yours is still alive, double the watering!
Come summer, you’ll probably bring many of your houseplants outdoors. I know I will. So I’ve started bring a few out for a little direct sunshine. By slowly introducing them to sunshine now, they are less likely to get sunburned when they move out full time. An hour or two a day is a good re-introduction to the sun.
Oh, and by the way, the capitol of Nebraska is Lincoln, not Omaha. I know. My hibiscus told me.
I don’t know about you, but I am more than ready for spring blossoms. My little bulbs like snowdrops are blooming already, but I want my magnolia, crabapples, forsythia and daphne to bloom, too. Fortunately, I can easily speed up the process –indoors. Here’s what I’m doing.
I have cut branches with flower buds and brought them inside to force them in a vase of water. It’s important to know what to look for when you cut branches to force.
Let’s start with apples. What you need to cut are older branches with little stubby outgrowths on them. Those stubs are called fruit spurs, and if they are at least 2 years old, they should produce flowers and as well as leaves. Most apple trees also create pencil-thin straight new shoots each year. These are called water sprouts and will not produce blossoms in a vase, only leaves. Sometimes I pick water sprouts, too, as even leaves are pleasant in early spring.
Fruit spurs most often are produced on branches that are growing at a 30 to 45 degree angle to the trunk or a main branch. Some young trees tend to be very vertical, sending most branches virtually straight up. If you bend a vertical branch to a broader angle, it will often develop fruit spurs in a year or two. Just tie it in place from now until early June and it should stay at the new angle.
An apple fruit spur produces not one flower, but a few, and leaves, too. Just put the branches in a vase of water in a sunny window. In a week or more the branches will burst open with blossoms. When I prune fruit trees, including apples, crabapples and pears, I regard the branches carefully and pick those most loaded with fruit spurs to bring into the house.
Some 20 years ago I planted a small magnolia in my back yard in the middle of an open lawn. Over the years it has reached full size – perhaps 25 feet tall and nearly as wide – and it blooms reliably on my birthday in late April. I have already cut some branches and put them in a vase, and they will bloom indoors within a week or so.
My magnolia is a ‘Merrill’ hybrid. It is a perfect 4-season plant. In the spring mine has more than a thousand 4-inch, lightly fragrant blossoms. In the summer it has glossy green leaves, and no pests. In the fall it displays colorful seeds and bright yellow foliage. In the winter the buds that will open in spring look like pussy
willows on steroids. And it is growing in moist soil near a stream, a location where many trees would not thrive (many do not like wet feet) . Other than the ancient, stately maples on my property, it is my favorite tree.
Then there is the forsythia, one of the earlier things to bloom in our part of the world. For decades gardeners in northern New England grew old fashioned varieties of forsythia and got blossoms low on the bushes, but not above the snow line. Flower buds on any early-blooming shrub are formed the summer before, and must survive the cold temperatures and winds of winter. Those forsythia buds were not hardy in my zone.
But all that has changed. There are now varieties that are fully hardy in Zone 4 – where temperatures drop to minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit each winter. Prime among them are New Hampshire Gold (developed in my home town of Cornish, NH by the late Paul Joy), Vermont Sun, Meadowlark and Northern Gold. These bloom everywhere. When cutting stems for blossoms, pick vigorous young stems. By now you should see some hints of gold in the buds on those branches.
I‘ve been growing a tidy shrub called February Daphne for a dozen years or so. Its proper botanical name is Daphne mezereum. I love this plant so much that when I got a corgi puppy 10 years ago, my first AKC registered dog, I named her Daphne Mezereum. Of course I call my wonderful dog Daffy (except when she rolls in nasty stuff, when I may use her full name to reprimand her).
February Daphne may bloom somewhere in February – New Jersey, the garden state, for example – but for me it blooms in April. Early April if the weather is mild, like this year. I picked some recently and the buds, nearly open, popped open almost immediately.
The rule of thumb is this: the closer you are to the outdoor bloom date, the quicker a branch will bloom in the house. Lilac, which is still many weeks from blooming for me, will not quickly or easily force in the house now. A week before those buds open? Piece of cake.
On another topic, an important one for gardeners, is the presence of deer ticks in the garden. I recently researched deer ticks and the diseases they carry, including Lyme disease. Ticks are already out and biting. If you wish to go on-line, you can see my piece that gives 7 ways to prevent Lyme disease, along with photos of the ticks. Just go to https://dailyuv.com/
Henry is a UNH Master Gardener and the author of 4 gardening books. He lives and gardens in Cornish Flat, NH. His web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com.
I talked to a gardening friend who has already started planting a few things in his vegetable garden. Not me! Despite a few warm sunny days, it is way too cold and wet in my garden to do much of anything. Seeds will rot in cold, wet soil. Here’s what I’m doing – or not doing.
Technically, spring is here, but the soil temperature in my garden is in the thirties, even when the air gets into the fifties or warmer. We need consistently warm temperatures before I will plant outdoors because it takes time to warm up the soil. I want the soil to reach 50 degrees or warmer before I plant.
Yes, I take my soil’s temperature, much as I would a sick puppy or a child trying to avoid school. I have a thermometer that looks like an old analog oven thermometer: a steel probe with a round button with a dial on top that shows the temperature. Mine was designed for use in compost piles, so the probe is a couple of feet long. You can look at your local garden center, or order one from Gardeners Supply Company (www.gardeners.com) in Burlington, VT.
I’m not ready to rake off the leaves I spread on my vegetable beds last fall. In October I weeded my vegetable garden and then covered it with 4 to 6 inches of leaves that I’d run over with the lawnmower and raked up. The leaves kept the soil from washing from my mounded raised beds into the walkways (the beds don’t have planks to contain the soil).
Unfortunately, the layer of leaves is also an insulator, so the soil will stay colder than bare soil until I remove it. But the leaves inhibit weeds from growing, too. That’s a good thing. Since my soil is still pretty soggy, I don’t want to walk in the garden or disturb the soil.
Soil is actually a bit fragile at this time of year – step on it (or rototill it) and you can ruin its structure. So the leaves keep weeds from growing until I rake them off in late April or early May.
Once the leaves are off the beds and raked into the pathways, two kinds of weeds will grow: annual weeds and perennial weeds like dandelions and witch grass. Annual weeds grow from seeds and are easy to kill: you can run a sharp hoe just below the surface, slicing off the tops from the roots. That will kill annual weeds when they are small.
If you don’t get around to hoeing your beds and the weeds are well established, you could toast them! That’s right, cover a bed with clear plastic, seal the edges with soil, and in just a day or two of hot sunshine, they will be toast. I’ve measured the temperature in a bed being solarized, and on a 60-degree day, the temperature got over 100 degrees.
Perennial weeds need to be pulled. Their roots contain stored energy from last year, and generally even a scrap of root can regenerate and start a new plant. That is one of the reasons I don’t recommend rototilling. Chop up witch grass roots and each piece with a node will produce a new plant if it is within a few inches of the soil surface. It’s true that plowing a field and turning the sod under a foot of soil will kill most grasses, but that’s different than rototilling.
Meanwhile, indoors, it’s almost time to start planting. Generally I recommend starting most things 6 to 8 weeks before I put them outside. I plant tomatoes outdoors in early June. So April 10 is my planting date most years. I use a biodynamic calendar called Stella Natura (www.stellanatura.com) to advise me about planting dates. It uses the planets, stars and the moon to determine good times for planting fruits (tomatoes and peppers), roots (carrots and potatoes), flowers (artichokes and cauliflower) and leaves (lettuce and kale).
This year April 10th is a root day, but the two days before, according to Stella Natura, are fruit days up until 2pm on April 9th. At that point there is a blackout period until 6pm, and I will definitely not plant anything then. My informal experiments with blackout days have shown me that there is a significant disadvantage to planting then.
So what should you do if you didn’t weed and prepare your beds last fall? Start weeding, a little every day, as soon as your beds dry out. An easy way to see if your soil is ready to work is to grab a handful of soil and squeeze it. Hold that ball of soil, and tap it with a finger. If the soil is ready to work, it should crumble. If not, wait.
And when your soil is ready to work, think about creating some mounded, raised beds. You can do this by loosening the soil with a garden fork, then raking the loose soil into beds that are about 3 feet wide and stand up 4 to 6 inches above the walkways. Add a thick layer of compost on top, and scratch it into the soil at the top surface, and you’ll be ready to plant.
We all want to start gardening now, but do wait until your soil is as ready as you are!
Read Henry’s blog by going to https://dailyuv.com/
Last fall in my weekly newspaper column I commented that, if I’d been a good boy all year, I hoped Santa would bring me lemon or lime tree, one that would bear fruit indoors. Santa did not do so, though I can’t imagine why. But many kind readers emailed me saying, “Go to Logee’s Greenhouse (www.logees.com) in Danielson, Connecticut. They will have just what you want.” So after presenting at the Rhode Island Flower Show in February, I went to Logee’s. I got what I wanted – and more.
I met Byron Martin, whose grandfather started Logee’s in 1892. He showed me plants that had been alive longer than he had – some dating back to his grandfather’s days. By now the business has 14 greenhouses – including the original greenhouse.
Byron literally grew up in the greenhouses, and is a vast reservoir of knowledge. He also has a good sense of humor. In one greenhouse he showed us the Miracle Berry plant and invited us to taste the fruit. “Just chew it a little”, he said. “Spit out the seed.” It was nothing remarkable, pleasant, but nothing special.
Later, in a different greenhouse, Byron picked a lemon, cut it open and offered me a piece. “Try this,” he said. “It’s nothing like any lemon you’ve ever tasted.” Wow. It was sweet. I mean sweeter than an orange. He grinned and explained that the Miracle Berry changes the way your taste buds perceive flavors. The regular lemon he offered tasted sweet and delicious.
In addition to running a fabulous tropical greenhouse, Byron is also the co-author with Laurelynn Martin of Growing Tasty Tropical Plants in Any Home, Anywhere (Storey Publishing, 2010). This book really does tell you everything you need to know about growing tropical fruits. I wish I’d gotten it years ago.
The book explains not only how to do things, but why. I like that. So, for example, I knew that one shouldn’t transplant a small plant into a big pot, just go to the next size. It’s fine to move a plant from a 4 inch pot to a 6 inch pot, not a 12-inch pot. But I never knew why.
The book explains that a small plant in a big pot may develop root rot. Its small root system will not suck out the water from the far reaches of the pot, so the potting soil will remain cool and wet, and that can easily promote root rot. Makes sense.
Growing Tasty Tropical Plants has tips for success, plant by plant and best bets for beginners. It tells you how to grow coffee, tea and bananas. Cinnamon? Sure, you can do it. And what about those avocadoes from the pits we all have started? No, the book explains, those will never produce fruit – but there are kinds of avocado that will give you fruit.
As an organic gardener I appreciate that the Martin’s book explains easy, safe ways to control pests and diseases. Neem oil is produced by a tropical tree and offers pest control for many insects without resorting to synthetic chemicals. And a sharp blast of cold water can greatly reduce the population of aphids or spider mites. (I’ve been known to shower with my house plants).
So what am I growing now? I started with a key lime. This will produce fruit on a 2-foot tall plant, blooming in late winter or early spring and producing fruit in the fall into winter. The book explains that it needs temperatures of 60 degrees or more, as much sun as possible, and well-drained potting mix. It will not do well in consistently wet soil mix.
Then I got a Meyer Lemon. With proper pruning it will produce fruit when just three feet tall and is on the “Best Bets for Beginners” list. Like the lime, this plant will go outside in full sun for the summer, and can tolerate temperatures down to 50 degrees. At Logee’s, most of their lemons grow in 12-inch baskets high in the greenhouse as they love heat. Each of those plants produces about 30 lemons a year!
And of course I had to get a Miracle Berry (Synsepalum dulcificum). According to the book, if kept in full sun and fertilized monthly, it fruits heavily twice a year. And, according to some, chewing on a mature fruit will change the taste of lousy red wine into something a wine aficionado dreams of.
Byron gave me a bay plant so I can have leaves for use in the kitchen, and a neem tree just for fun. I knew the neem tree from my years in Africa, its native home. Interestingly, Bambara farmers in Mali called it the equivalent of the “manure tree”, having figured out that it improves the soil (by fixing nitrogen). According to Byron’s book, neem oil will smoother and eradicate white flies, mealybugs, thrips and more. I bought a small bottle of it.
In a year or two I should be harvesting lemons and limes. I have a good sunny window for the winter, and they will go out in the summer. And if you want to try some of these things, think about a road trip to Logee’s.
Henry is now blogging regularly. Go to https://dailyuv.com/
March is a good time to prune not just fruit trees, but also your blueberries. Blueberries here in New England are relatively slow growing, so they don’t need to be pruned every year. But they do need help from time to time.
Ready to prune? Your first question should be,” Has the soil thawed and dried out enough to walk around the bushes without damaging the soil?” This is important. You can damage soil structure and roots by walking on soil that has thawed, but has a layer of frozen soil beneath it. Also if the soil is squishy, making sounds or leaving footprints, you should stay away. Yes, I know you want something to do outside on a warm spring day. But stay away from the blueberries, off the lawn and out of the garden until soil has dried out.
Before making your first cut you need to know the difference between leaf buds and fruit buds. A branch that has few or no fruit buds is a good candidate for your pruners. Snip it off, and it will open up the bush, allowing sunshine to get to the productive branches.
Fruit buds are fat and leaf buds are not, they are slim and pointy. Simple as that. The rounded fruit buds generally produce a cluster of berries, not just a single berry, and you will certainly lose some berries when you take off a branch, it’s inevitable. But let the number of fruit buds on a branch guide you as you make your cuts.
Whether pruning blueberries or apples or pears, you should never cut branches in a way that leaves stubs. Branches heal at their point of origin, either at the trunk or a bigger branch. On larger branches you may notice a larger, almost swollen area called the branch collar; they should remain when pruning any type of branch. If you cut off a branch an inch from the branch collar, the stub will need to rot back to the branch collar before it heals. In the meantime pests or diseases may be attracted to the dying wood.
Pruning is the ultimate game of choices for the gardener. Remove this branch or that? Here are some guidelines for making your choices.
Blueberries really are easy to grow. They need full sun, which means a minimum of six hours per day. But most importantly, they need very acidic soil. Now would be a good time to collect a soil sample and send it off for testing at your state Cooperative Extension laboratory. You can download the form on-line, just Google “soil testing” and your state.
If your soil is not acidic enough, you can add elemental sulfur. This is fine for organic gardeners, too, as it is mined from the earth, not manufactured in a chemical plant.
Changing the soil pH may take you a number of years. It is better to add some elemental sulphur this year, and again next year and in later years rather than dumping too much on at once. Your ultimate goal is a pH in the range of 4.0 t0 5.0. The scale is logarithmic, meaning that 4.0 is ten times more acidic than 5.0, and a hundred times more acidic than 6.0. Seven on the scale is neutral.
My last bit of advice, and one I don’t follow well myself, is to keep the root zone of the blueberries weed free. Mulching with a thick layer of chipped branches is the best way to do so, and I’m going to do so this year!
So do some pruning this year, your blueberries will develop into more vigorous plants in just a year or two. And the rules for pruning blueberries can be applied to your apples, crabapples, plums and pears. So get busy!
Henry is now blogging regularly and you can read this at https://dailyuv.com/
When I was a boy and saw robins hopping around on the lawn when it was still frozen and partially snow-covered, my first impulse was to go buy some fishing worms and put them out. We feed the chickadees sunflower seeds, don’t we, I asked my mom? Why not feed the robins?
Sixty years later I am feeding the robins – but not worms. The robins this year came back early, and in great numbers. They have been feasting on crabapples lingering on a tree I planted outside my kitchen window. We gardeners can do much to provide the biological diversity needed in our environment to feed the birds – robins included. And earlier this winter that same tree fed the wild turkeys for a day or two. Fortunately it produces plenty of fruit, and there was some left for those early birds from the south.
Many years ago I attended a talk by naturalist Ted Levin of Norwich, Vermont. He explained that not all fruit is created equal. Birds need calories, and thus go first to any food source that has a high fat content, particularly in winter. Birds are a bit like teenagers: pepperoni berries would suit them fine. Some fruits have high sugar content, which also makes them attractive. Think of blueberries, and how quickly the birds can make clean off a bush if it’s not covered in netting.
Of the crabapples, some are liked by birds and others ignored. According to Kevin Brown of E.C. Brown Nursery of Thetford (www.ecbrownsnursery.biz), the following are good crabapples loved by birds: Snowdrift, Sugar Time, Sargent, Red Jewel, Prairie Fire and Golden Rainbow.
In many places staghorn sumac (Rhus hirta) are still loaded with dry red fruit, their seeds are clustered in “bobs” that are displayed at the tips of the top branches. Sumac is not generally planted by gardeners – unless you consider birds gardeners. They eat the seeds at this time of year and some seeds pass through their digestive systems unharmed. But sumac seeds have very little fat content, so, according to Levin, they have remained largely uneaten until now – the hungry time. I have seen starlings and bluejays eating them, and read that another 20 or so species do, too.
If you are interested in learning more about trees that feed birds, or provide them with shelter or nesting sites, there is a wonderful book available in paperback by Richard M. DeGraaf calledTrees, Shrubs, and Vines for Attracting Birds. It is in a second edition published by University of New England Press for $24.95. The book lists what birds use each of a hundred or so plants for food, shelter and nesting. So if you want to attract a specific bird, you can find plants that will attract it.
Other good woody plants for bird food include elderberries, grapes, shadbush (Amelanchier spp.) and pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia). Elderberries like moist soil – I have them growing right up next to my stream. They are not long-loved plants, generally surviving under 10 years. Planting 2 or more varieties together will help to get better pollination.
Grapes produce their fruit on new canes. So prune them heavily each winter, before they set blossoms or leaves. A good structure to support the vines is important, too.
Shadbush is one of the first trees to bloom each spring. Its blossoms are similar to apples, but the fruit is small and dark, almost like a blueberry. Birds are ready to eat the fruit a few days before it is fully ripe, so although I have several bushes, it was many years before I got to eat any.
Pagoda dogwood is a wonderful native shrub that grows willy-nilly on my property. Like elderberries, it is not a plant with a long lifetime. It’s an understory tree that can do well even in shade. The blossoms, unlike those on its cousin the flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), are small and understated. In late summer its fruit – dark blue drupes (fruit with one large seed, like a cherry) are prominently displayed on red upward-facing stems. And the birds love them, stripping them off as soon as they are ripe.
All evergreens are important to birds, too, including white pine, hemlock, balsam fir and spruces of all kinds. Birds not only eat the seeds, they nestle in their branches to be out of the winter winds.
So don’t worry about feeding those early-arriving robins. No need to buy fishing worms for them. But do think about planting some nice trees or shrubs for them this year. They’ll appreciate your efforts and reward you by eating some of the bugs in your yard.
Henry Homeyer lives in Cornish Flat, NH and is the author of 4 gardening books. His website iswww.Gardening-Guy.com. Henry is now blogging twice a week. Read his blogs athttps://dailyuv.com/
Thinking about writing a memoir, I recently pawed through my late mother’s journal from 1948. I was amazed to read that on my second birthday my sister, Ruth Anne, herself just four and a half, gave me a wheelbarrow, my first. My parents gave me a watering can. My Uncle Ralph and Auntie Ruth gave me a shovel.
With gifts like those, is it a surprise that I turned out to be a gardening guy? Or that I now own 7 kinds of wheelbarrows, uncountable hand tools and several watering cans? Spring is just around the corner and this might be a good time to look over the necessities for the upcoming gardening season.
One of my first memories in life is being in the garden with my grandfather when a quick thunderstorm approached. Grampy scooped me up, placed me on a pile of weeds in his wooden wheelbarrow, and we raced back to his old farmhouse. I loved that wheelbarrow.
Many years later I searched for a company making wooden wheelbarrows and found Spring Valley Woodworking in Gordonville PA run by Ike Lapp, who is Old Order Amish. I’ve met Ike and purchased one of his barrows. It has removable sides, which is nice for lugging fence posts, and a steel-rimmed wooden wheel that never goes flat. It even makes the same squeak my grandfather’s wheelbarrow made all those years ago.
To reach Ike and order a barrow, leave a message for him at 717-355-9366. He can’t have a phone in his home or workplace, but has a plywood shack with an answering machine in the middle of a field. He will return your call at his convenience, not yours. Maybe we should all be more like that.
My sturdiest wheelbarrow, the one I go to most often is called a Smart Cart (www.shopmullerscarts.com). It is great for heavy and bulky loads. The axle is centered under the load so that it feels light to the touch and turns easily on its two wide 16-inch diameter wheels. It has a tubular aluminum frame and a big plastic bin (7 cubic feet).
You can easily remove the bin from the frame so that you can wash the dog in it, or carry compost in the back of your car. My model (with wide wheels) is rated for 600 lbs; the wire wheel version is rated for 400 lbs. There is also a 12-cubic foot bin that is interchangeable with the 7-foot bin, though I’ve never seen it.
Everything about this cart is well designed. It’s more expensive than a standard wheelbarrow, but worth it. I’ve kept mine outdoors all summer for years without problems. I visited the web site and see that there are now 2 grades of carts: contractor (original) and a less expensive residential grade, which I have not tested.
Then there is the standard old-fashioned one-wheeled wheelbarrow in either metal or plastic. I have a metal one, but have had a plastic one, too. The metal ones are better for heavy loads, but do rust over time. Generally they have wooden handles that are replaceable – though you shouldn’t have to. Their biggest advantage is that they can turn on a dime and will go down a narrow path in the garden – something 2-wheeled barrows generally cannot do. They come in two sizes: 6- and 4-cubic foot varieties. I have the larger one.
I also have a plywood garden cart. The original brand, often called a Garden Way cart, is made by Carts Vermont (www.cartsvermont.com) though other companies now make them. These come in 2 sizes: Mid-size (6.5 cu feet) and large (13.6 cubic feet), which I have. These are great for carrying bulky loads like hay and leaves. They use 26-inch bicycle tires, but offer a solid tire as an option – which I wish I had. Avoiding flat tires would be great.
Then there is my folding aluminum wheelbarrow. It is the Tipke 2100 folding cart (www.tipkemfg.com/foldit), and is remarkably sturdy. It has removable sides like my grandfather’s cart but its main claim to fame is that it folds up – and weighs just 33 pounds. If you are an apartment dweller, you can store it in a closet; it will fit in a small car to go to the community garden, but it can carry up to 330 lbs.
There are also electric powered wheelbarrows that can assist you in getting up a long incline with a heavy load. A rechargeable 24 volt battery is the standard power source. I tried one a few years ago, but the motor and battery add weight and cost, so I was not interested. I’ve seen several brands on-line.
I’ve also tried the cheap plastic wheelbarrows with plastic wheels. They cost well under $100 at big box stores, and are worth even less. I wouldn’t have one, but I suppose if you are just beginning and on a restricted budget, one might do the job for a few years.
When possible, I recommend buying wheelbarrows after trying one out. So go to your local feed-and-grain store or garden center and test drive one. Do it now, before you get too busy in the garden.
Henry lives and gardens in Cornish Flat, NH. His website is www.Gardening-Guy.com.
As we amble toward spring I find I crave blossoms more and more. This must delight the people who sell flowers, as I have a hard time walking by a display of iris or daffodils growing in pots without buying some. But buying grocery store potted bulb-flowers is not just an indulgence. Many can be kept alive until the ground thaws and planted. Others are less durable. Let’s take a look.
I love those little purple iris that are commonly sold in 4-inch pots. I bought some recently for $3.99 and although they only lasted a week, I was delighted to have them. This particular iris is known to botanists by its Latin name, Iris reticulata. It’s related to Siberian iris and bearded iris, but has different growing needs.
According to the tag that came with the iris, you can plant these outdoors “in part shade after last spring frost.” What they don’t tell you is that Iris reticulata require very good drainage. They originated in the mountains of western Asia where they grow wild on pumice slopes of extinct volcanoes.
If you want these fabulous little iris to succeed for you, do not plant them in a heavy clay soil. In fact, build a six-inch raised bed of sandy soil and grit with very little organic matter. Outline your planting bed with stones or bricks. You should be able to pour water from your watering can over the bed and not have any pooling. Planting on a hillside will help with drainage, too. Most of my soil is too rich for Iris reticulata, so I’ve not had good luck with them after the first year. I guess this year I’ll build them their own little bed.
Tete-a-tete daffodils are great little bundles of yellow joy that are common in grocery stores and at flower shows. Each bulb produces more than one mini daffodil. They are very cold hardy and can be planted outdoors when the soil has thawed. Just keep them watered indoors after blooming. Like other small bulbs, plant the tips just 2 inches beneath the soil surface.
Every year I force paper whites. Also in the daffodil family, these are not usually planted in soil indoors, but in a container filled with pebbles. Choose one that has no holes and arrange the paper whites bulbs among the stones. Later, when the leaves and stems are tall, they will tip over unless you arrange your stones so that they hold the bulbs in place. I add water until it just kisses the bottom of the bulbs. Roots emerge and soon thereafter green leaves and flower buds emerge. Each bulb should produce more than one blossom.
The paper white flowers are usually – though not always – highly fragrant. Some people do not like the scent, though I do. And even after the flowers have dried out they still look good to me for quite a while. The unfortunate part about paperwhites is that they are not viable in our climate outdoors. No, do not save them and plant outdoors. They will not come back for you next year.
I also potted bulbs for forcing that I put in my cold basement last November, and I have brought them up into the light and warmth of the house. This year I used a plastic container called an “Earth Box” for planting. The one I used is 22 inches long, 9 inches wide and has a planting space about 7 inches deep; I planted about 20 bulbs in it. It is a “self-watering container” that has a water holding compartment a couple of inches deep.
Self-watering containers are all the rage for growing flowers on decks and doorsteps. They prevent the dehydration (and death) that old fashioned flower pots allowed. They wick up water from the water reservoir so that you only have to water once a week or so, depending on the weather. But they are great as containers for bulbs, too, because they don’t leak water out onto your table or windowsill unless you dump gallons of water and make them overflow.
Tulips are some of my favorite flowers but are also loved by deer, chipmunks, voles (but never moles), red squirrels, gray squirrels and a variety of other rodents. The bulbs are even edible by humans – some Dutch ate them to avoid starvation in WWII. So most years I plant some in pots and force them to bloom indoors. Just enjoy them now.
My personal experience is that tulips bloom well their first year –indoors or out – but fewer and fewer bloom each year thereafter. So if you buy potted tulips at the florist shop or nursery, I don’t think they are worth babying along until summer and planting outdoors in May.
I planted 100 tulips in a big raised bed in my vegetable garden last fall. I planted a few garlic cloves in with them in an effort to discourage rodents, though that is no sure cure. In the past deer have not bothered my tulips, but if I am feeling paranoid or see lots of footprints near the tulip bed, I could surround it with a chicken wire fence. Since the bed is only 8 feet by 3 feet, even a 4-foot fence should keep out the deer, I believe. I will use the tulips as cut flowers.
So brighten your house with some flowers grown from bulbs. Most you’ll be able to plant outdoors for another show next year, albeit later.
Henry may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or at P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746. Please include a stamped envelope if you wish a response by mail.