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Planting Trees



Fall is hard upon us, or at least here, in Cornish Flat. I know I should “toughen up” and ignore the cold, but I admit it here: I had my first fire in the wood stove recently. It felt great on a raw, rainy night. “Real” New Englanders never admit to turning on the heat or starting a fire until Halloween or later. Not me. And I’m looking at fall chores outside, too. Chief among them is planting trees and shrubs.

 

There is disagreement among experts as to the best time to plant trees. Some like spring, saying roots have a longer time to get established before winter. Other say no, if you skip a week or two of watering in the heat of August, you can damage roots or even kill a tree. Fall is safer, they say, because the weather is cooler and often rainy. Experts explain that roots grow and extend in fall, even after leaf drop – right up to the time the ground freezes. That last argument makes sense to me, so I’m in the “plant trees in fall” camp.

 

Trees sold in nurseries are often grown in fields like corn – row after row of maples, birches and oaks. Then they are lifted out of the soil and plunked into plastic pots. Those pots are then filled up with a potting mix but little or no regard is paid to the placement of the seedling in the pot. Workers don’t seem to know or care that it’s important that the “trunk flare” is on the surface of the potting mix – not buried 3 to 6 inches below the surface. This often causes trouble later on.

 

I recently planted a 10-foot tall Merrill magnolia for a client. It came in a plastic pot that was about a foot deep and wide. One of the first tasks I did was to dig around in the planting mix to find the trunk flare. Trees in nature – or well planted in the landscape – don’t look like telephone poles at the ground’s surface. Instead, the trunk flares out, displaying above ground “roots” that stabilize the tree in high winds. But even a large tree in a pot may not show much flare.

 

Here’s the problem: If the flare is covered up, the bark will be covered by soil and will eventually rot. The growing layer beneath it (the cambium) will be ruined – and the tree will decline and die. But it’s a slow process, taking 6 to 10 years. Sometimes more. Look for tip die back – trees that lose their leaves at their tops long before the rest of the leaves. Those are trees that are not doing well, and may have trunk flares covered by soil or mulch. Remove the soil until you can see the trunk flare, and you can save the tree.

 

At planting time you need to figure out what was above ground while the tree was growing in the ground, and clear soil off it before planting. You might be misled by little roots growing out of the trunk flare if the tree has been in the pot for a year or more. Trees in nurseries are watered from above, so trees in pots grow roots at the surface of the pot. But you can disregard those roots, or cut them off. Use your fingers to loosen soil around the base of the trunk and expose the trunk where it flares out. Then you are ready to plant.

 

Filling the hole that is wide, not deep

Filling the hole that is wide, not deep

 

Many experts advise digging a hole that is three times as wide as the pot it came in. I like 4 or 5 times the width of the root ball. The idea is create a zone around the planted tree that has nice loose, fluffy soil that will allow fine roots to penetrate it. But the depth should just be the depth of the root ball, not more. You want the root ball to sit on unexcavated soil so that it doesn’t sink down deeper after a few rains or waterings.

 

What do you do if planting on a hillside? You must create a level terrace for the tree by cutting into the bank and/or filling up the lower side with fill. Generally it is better to cut into a hillside and re-grade the soil.

 

Once the hole is dug, remove the tree from the pot and place it in the hole. If you place a tool handle over the hole you can easily see if the hole is the right depth. Be sure the bottom is flat and the tree is vertical, not leaning. Look at it from 2 sides to see if it is straight, and if the best side is showing forward.

 

 

Teasing out the roots

Teasing out the roots

I tease out the roots on the sides and bottom of the root ball to loosen them up before filling the hole. Then I refill the hole, using the same soil I dug out – minus the rocks. It’s okay, according to me, to add a little compost or rich topsoil to the fill if planting in poor soil. But don’t fill the hole just with topsoil and compost. If you do, the roots may never extend past the hole you have dug – like a tree growing in a bathtub.

 

Mother Nature doesn’t use fertilizer, and I don’t either. I don’t want to push a tree to grow fast in its first year, which fertilizer would promote. I want it to get established, and to send out roots looking for water and minerals.

 

Planting a tree is not rocket science. Just expose the trunk flare before you put it in the ground, dig a nice wide hole, and keep it watered for the first year of its life. Planted right, your tree should out last you!

 

Henry Homeyer is a UNH Master Gardener, and the author of 4 gardening books. His e-mail address is henry.homeyer@comcast.net. His Web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com.

 

Fall Chores



The fall equinox arrives on September 23 this year. On that date, days and nights are of equal length, but with each subsequent day the nights get a little bit longer and we begin our descent into winter. For many gardeners, the shortening days are not welcomed. I try to look at the positive side: we all need a break from weeding and working on our gardens. It’s not time to hang up our tools and put them away, but we can start to slow down.

 

My vegetable garden did well this year. We had plenty of rain – but lots of sun, too. Often the rain was torrential – which is not ideal – but it most often fell at night, followed by sunny days which were great for growing. I worked a piece of borrowed land this summer, one that had been fallow for a couple of years, and I was not bothered by tomato blights there, so the leaves are still green and the plants producing well.

 

 

Organic Corn from my Garden

Organic Corn from my Garden

I grew corn for the first time in more than 20 years and was delighted that the corn did not all get ripe at once; it ripened over a 3 week period. I had plenty to share, which is nice, too. People often say that you can’t grow corn organically – that you need insecticides to kill the corn ear worms and chemical fertilizers to feed the nitrogen-hungry plants. I used neither, and got fat, juicy ears that produced not a single worm. I fertilized with Pro-Gro organic fertilizer at planting time. Period. Too much nitrogen from chemical fertilizers has been shown to attract insects.

 

I used a lot of hay as mulch this year, and that really helped to keep weeding to a manageable level. Three or four inches of mulch hay around the tomatoes applied early on kept down weeds and provided a nice clean place for fruit, some of which inevitably lands on the ground (despite the cages).

 

It’s important to clean up and remove diseased plants once they have stopped producing. I like to mix plant carcasses with brush in a pile in the garden where I can burn it all after the snow flies. Insects (and their larvae and eggs) and fungal spores can be effectively destroyed that way. Weeds harboring seeds can go on the pile, too. Weeds with big clusters of seeds should not go in a compost pile that you intend to use anytime soon. Weed seeds can last for years, and composting often does not kill them.

 

Some of my flower beds are less weedy this year than in the recent past. I’ve realized that I have more flower beds than I can keep up with by myself, so I hired a fellow to help me weed this summer – and he actually knows the difference between a flower and a weed! It was quite liberating. But I need to go over some of the beds he worked on and get out little weeds that have appeared since he cleaned them up. Weed seeds – or scraps of root – are a fact of life, and re-weeding is always necessary. If I get these little weeds now, it will help me have cleaner beds in the spring. It will help, too, if I put down a layer of bark mulch after this weeding.

 

Each summer I grow colorful plants on my deck, and I dread the onset of cold weather as many of these plants will never be happy inside the house. They just can’t survive the lower light levels indoors. Each fall night that portends frost I scurry back and forth from the deck to the indoors, lugging my favorite plants. I keep them living as long as I can but realize that some will have to be left to succumb to the arriving cold.

 

A fall chore I do each year without fail is to wash the leaves, top and bottom, of any plant that I bring in from the outside. I do this to wash off aphids and their eggs and larvae. Aphids are well controlled outdoors – there are lots of predator insects that consider them the Ben and Jerry’s of the insect world, consuming them with glee. But indoors? Even a few eggs will soon produce adults that will reproduce and make a mess of my houseplants. So I wash them with a sharp stream of water from the hose, let them dry in the sun, and then bring them indoors for the winter.

 

 

Sword lily

Sword lily

A fall chore I often forget to do in time is to dig up and store tender bulbs like gladiolas, dahlias and peacock orchids or sword lilies (Acidanthera spp.). These will not survive our winters and deserve to come indoors to live in a paper bag in a cool spot. This year I resolve to do better. I planted sword lilies in pots and they are blooming beautifully right now, and are delightfully fragrant.

 

This week I will plant some grass seed. Fall is a good time to fill in dead spots on the lawn. The soil is warmer now than in the spring, and fall rains will make watering less needed. There is still plenty of time for the new grass plants to get established before cold weather. I’ll just scuff up the soil with a short-tined garden rake, spread some seed, and then cover it with a thin layer of mulch. Finally I’ll smooth over the mulch with the back side of a lawn rake to mix in the seed and compress the soil a bit by putting down a board or small square of plywood and stepping on it lightly.

 

There will still be plenty of summer-like days ahead, but it’s good, I think, to start planning for fall and winter. Before we know it, we’ll be raking up the leaves – and shoveling snow.

 

Henry Homeyer is a garden designer and consultant, and the author of 5 books. His web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com.

 

 

Plants for the Front Porch



We New Englanders have a long tradition of doing something to brighten the approach to our front door. In winter it’s a nice green wreath; my grandmother liked red geraniums in a pot by the door all summer; in fall, pumpkins and chrysanthemums are traditional decorations. Three common decorative plants are available for purchase at farm stands now – and worth a look.

 

Chrysanthemums are very popular, and are readily available in a wide range of colors. I treat them as annuals even though some are touted as perennials. I once estimated the number of buds and blossoms on a potted “mum”. By counting and multiplying I arrived at an estimate of 300 blossoms on a plant that was perhaps 18-inches across. Phenomenal. But if I had planted it in the ground and it came back the next spring, I would have gotten just a small fraction of the number of blossoms the following year. Why? The growers pinch back the stems at least twice to make the plant branch again and again. I don’t have the patience to do so.

 

A few tips about keeping mums happy. First, they have a large number of blossoms and leaves for the size of their pots. On a crisp fall day a mum loses a lot of water, especially on a sunny doorstep. You probably should water daily, or every other day. If yours comes in a peat pot, which many do, the soil or potting mix will dry out even faster than if it’s growing in a plastic pot. I find that submerging the pots in a big container of water and holding them down until they stop bubbling is the best way to get the roots full hydrated. Or transplant them to self-water containers that have water reservoirs to prevent roots from drying out.

 

Secondly, if you want to plant your mums in the ground, be careful at planting time: the branches are often very brittle. It’s always disappointing to me when I break off a big section of a mum before it can even strut its stuff for a moment. Usually I just leave my mums in their pots and arrange them by the front door.

 

If I do plant my mums, I endeavor to plant them deep enough so that I can cover the root ball with an inch of real soil (they are planted in a peat-based growing mix that dries out very quickly). And although you can plant the peat pots directly in the ground, tear off the top 2 inches of pot so that it won’t be sticking up and wicking water away. Remember, a dry mum is an unhappy mum. Frost seems a long way away now, but remember to cover mums when hard frost comes, or bring the pots indoors. They survive light frost nicely.

 

Another great fall doorstep plant is decorative cabbage or kale. I just bought a big fat one at a farmers market recently, and it will look great all fall, assuming I don’t let it dry out. Last year I started a couple of dozen decorative kales from seed, but was disappointed that they stayed smaller than those generally sold, and bolted in the heat of summer. Huh. The professionals seem to have tricks I do not. I had mine in the ground, not pots, and had planned on transplanting them into nice containers after Labor Day, but ultimately I didn’t think them worthy of moving to the front of the house.

 

Decorative Kale

Decorative Kale

Decorative kale generally has dark green or purplish leaves on the outside, and pink, white or light purple inside. I’ve read that they are, indeed, edible, but are tough and leathery; why bother when edible kale is so easy to grow and tasty? Another great feature of decorative kale is its ability to survive frost. It will not even blink when temperatures drop down into the teens, assuming that your plant has seen temperatures in the twenties and has had time to get used to cold weather. I’ve read that they will survive temperatures as low as 5 degrees without harm.

 

The last of the fall porch plants are the short asters commonly available in blues and purples, and occasionally in white. Like the mums, these have been pinched back to stimulate the production of more blossoms – and to keep them short. Most are winter hardy, and I have planted them in the ground and let them come back for a second show the next year. But instead of being under a foot tall, they were at least 18 inches tall and only had a few blossoms. I never got around to pinching them back. Nice in the second year, but not dramatic. I usually prefer to buy new plants and let someone else do all the hard work.

 

Even if you have some new mums on the porch, don’t forget about your window boxes and planters full of annuals. Yes, they may look bedraggled now, but with a little care you can give them new life. Deadhead blossoms, cutting back stems several inches below those tired seed heads. This is tedious, but worthwhile. And give those annuals a burst of energy with some liquid fertilizer. I use a liquid fish mix, but there are plenty of choices, and almost anything will help.

 

When I see a nice pot of flowers on a neighbor’s porch I always think, “How nice. She is blessing us all with a glimpse of beauty as we go by.” I try to do my part in doing the same, and hope you will, too.

 

 

Henry Homeyer is a gardening coach, garden designer and the author of 4 gardening books. His Web site is www.Gardening-guy.com.

 

Getting Ready for Winter

Posted on Wednesday, August 27, 2014 · Leave a Comment 



Summer is nearly over. Those big yellow school buses are beginning their morning ambles and cool nights call for blankets on the bed. It’s time for me to get serious about putting up veggies for the winter.

 

With the exception of lettuce, most vegetables can be saved for the winter – and beyond. Freezing them is one of the easiest ways of doing so and, if done properly, your veggies will be splendid when cooked and eaten on a cold winter night. But home-frozen vegetables won’t be the texture and flavor you like unless properly prepared. Do small batches to make it easier and quicker.

 

For starters, only use your best vegetables for freezing. Beans that are oversized and woody when you pick them will only be worse 6 months later. Pick things at their prime, and freeze them within 24 hours of picking. Sitting in the fridge for a few days will not improve them.

 

Many vegetables have enzymes that promote ripening of seeds – and general aging. Unless you drop them briefly in boiling water to kill those enzymes – a process called blanching – they may get woody or tough. Knowing how long to blanch your vegetables is very important. Boil them too long and you’ll have mushy beans or zucchini. In my experience a brief blanching – a minute or so – is perfect.

 

 

Blanching pots

Blanching pots

It’s worth buying a blanching pot if you want to freeze vegetables. This is an enameled tin pot with an interior pot that is full of holes for drainage. I fill my pot –complete with its inner section – roughly half full of water and bring it to a rolling boil. Then I drop my veggies into the water and time how long they are in, while watching them change color. Vegetables like beans, broccoli and kale will noticeably turn a lighter, brighter green when they are adequately blanched.

 

Generally 60-90 seconds of blanching is all that is required, even though the water may not even return to a full rolling boil. Use lots of water and not too many veggies for a quick return to boiling. Vegetables should still be crunchy, not mushy when they come out of the hot water. Brussels sprouts take a little longer in the hot water because they are larger and denser than most veggies.

 

But taking veggies out of the hot water is not enough. You need to cool them quickly in a cold water bath. I fill the sink with cold water and drop them in for a few minutes to cool them quickly, drain them, and spin them in my salad spinner. I like the kind of spinner that has a pull string (mine is a Zyliss brand). Finally I spread them out on a cloth tea towel and blot them with another. They are then ready to go in freezer-grade zipper bags. I always use new bags for freezing, not ones I’ve washed and recycled.

 

When freezing vegetables it’s a good idea to remove the excess air from the bags. There are machines sold that will do so, but I just use a common drinking straw. I get the bag closed around the straw, suck out the air, and then push the bag shut as I pull out the straw. The bag should cling to the vegetables if done right.

 

What should you blanch? Beans, beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots, cauliflower, corn, kale, spinach, squash and Swiss chard. What does not need it? Apples, pears, peppers, leeks, and tomatoes do not seem to need blanching, in my experience. Tomatoes, beans and Brussels sprouts freeze well whole, the others I cut up. Summer squash freezes well in half-inch cubes and is a great addition to winter soups. Winter squash I often steam or roast, then scoop out of the skins and into bags.

 

If you haven’t picked your garlic yet, pull it today! If left in the ground too long, the outer skins deteriorate and the garlic won’t store as well. But don’t cut off the tops just yet: let them cure in a dry, shady place. I’ve read that they absorb some nutrients from the stalks and leaves while curing. They store well anywhere – a cool dry spot is good, but you can hang them in the kitchen or keep them in the garage if the garage doesn’t get below freezing. Freezing and thawing would not be good for the garlic.

 

Onions are ready to harvest when their tops flop over. Like garlic, they need to cure for awhile before storing. Some gardeners just pull them and let them dry in the garden for several days. I prefer to put them on the shady deck to dry out. Then I store them on my wooden drying rack that I got from Gardeners Supply (www.gardeners.com). They sell them as “orchard racks” for $199. It has nine large wooden drawers with excellent ventilation. I generally use mine for onions, garlic and winter squash.

 

In addition to freezing, I also store potatoes, carrots, kohlrabi and rutabagas in a spare fridge or in a cold cellar with high humidity. I dry fruits, hot peppers and cherry tomatoes in a dehydrator. I do some canning, including my grandmother Lenat’s bread-and-butter pickles and some tomato sauce. But more about all of that on another day. I gotta get down to the garden and pick some veggies!

 

Henry Homeyer is the author of 4 gardening books and a fantasy-adventure for children. His Web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com.

 

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Daylilies

Posted on Wednesday, August 20, 2014 · Leave a Comment 



What one kind of flower would you bring with you if you were being sentenced to life on a deserted island? Would you pick peonies for their big, bold blossoms and tantalizing smell? Or perhaps primroses for their bountiful blossoms and willingness to spread? A better choice might actually be daylilies. They’ll grow just about anywhere, are generally untroubled by pests and diseases – and you can eat them! This is daylily season, and a good time to buy some more for your garden.

 

 

Frans Hals

Frans Hals

Let’s start with the common orange daylily (Hemerocallis fulva). Most gardens have some. You’ll also see them by the side of the road as if gardeners – having too many, but unwilling to compost them – have heaved them out the windows of their cars. These sturdy perennials will grow anywhere, and will even bloom in the shade. They were introduced from Asia in the late 1800’s and were admired as exotic at the time, I’m sure. But now they are too common for most gardeners’ taste. And they do spread by root, which can be bothersome.

 

In the Chinese market in Montreal daylily tubers are for sale for cooking. I’ve tried cleaning and cooking the roots of my own orange daylilies, but have decided that it’s too much work to get them clean enough to eat. They were tasty enough, but fry up almost anything with garlic and onions, and it will be yummy.

 

The flowers are edible and surprisingly delicious. Make a big green salad and add daylily petals for color. Don’t use the stamens and pistils (the little stuff inside the blossoms) as they’re not tasty. Chop or tear the petals. And toss in a few buds, which taste a bit like asparagus or green beans.

 

 

Blueberry Breakfast

Blueberry Breakfast

For a nice vegetable dish, sauté chopped onions, shallots or garlic in olive oil or butter. Add a little chopped tarragon and black pepper. When the onions are almost cooked, drop in buds from those common orange daylilies you have been meaning to manage, but haven’t. Select buds an inch to an inch and a half long. They will start to open when they are cooked – in just a minute or two.

 

For dessert you can take a wine glass and place in it a fully open, brightly-colored daylily blossom. Put in a scoop of sherbet in the blossom and garnish with a few fresh berries and a mint leaf if you have one. Yum!

 

Daylilies are great cut flowers. Because each blossom only lasts a day – hence the name – most people don’t use them in flower arrangements. But I cut scapes (leafless stems) that are just starting to bloom and have numerous fat, unopened buds. The buds will open one at a time for up to a week, depending on number of buds. This works most reliably if the arrangement gets some sunshine each day.

 

I recently visited Cider Hill Gardens in Windsor, VT to admire their collection of daylilies. They have daylilies in a wide range of colors, from nearly white (‘Ice Carnival’) to deep reds that border on black. They have daylilies that are pink, creamy yellow or light orange, lilac, lavender, bluish and red. Some come in one color, but most are bi-colored, with a throat or eye of a second color. Each flower has both petals and sepals, and in some, like ‘Frans Hals’, the petals and sepals can be different colors – a look I like.

Kindly Light a spider dayllily

Kindly Light a spider dayllily

Flower shape varies as much as the colors. There is the standard trumpet. Then there are those with ruffled edges (‘Here She Comes’ is a good one). And the so-called ‘spiders’, whose petals are narrow and spaced apart a little – like the legs of a spider. ‘Kindly Light’ is a nice yellow one. ‘Doubles, such as ‘Jean Swann’ have their centers filled in with lots of extra petals. And some are worth buying for their great names like ‘Blueberry Breakfast’ or ‘Bodacious’.

 

Then there are the re-blooming daylilies, like Stella de Oro, a gold-colored daylily that is very popular because it blooms off and on all summer. I’ve seen pictures of a re-bloomer called Purple de Oro that I simply must have. So many kinds, so little garden space!

 

 

Jean Swann

Jean Swann

What do daylilies want in life? Sunshine, dark rich soil, and adequate moisture. But they will settle for less – even a lot less- and bloom almost anywhere. Yes, slugs will sometimes nibble on the leaves, but they are not a magnet for bugs the way some roses are.

 

Over time clumps of daylilies get bigger, and you can divide them to start new clumps. Simply slice through a big clump with a spade to make two or four new plants, pry them apart and re-plant. I’ve been known to take out a chunk shaped like a piece of pie with a serrated knife – and the mother plant never even seemed to notice I’d done so. So run to your neighborhood plant center and have a look – you’ll likely come home with something wonderful.

 

Henry Homeyer is the author of 4 gardening books, and a children’s fantasy-adventure, Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet. Contact Henry through his Web site, www.Gardening-Guy.com.

 

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Composting

Posted on Wednesday, August 13, 2014 · Leave a Comment 



Most of us have our own insecurities. We might be insecure about some aspect of our looks, or how we did in school, or perhaps about our athletic abilities. For gardeners, our compost piles are often a source of mild angst. We think we should be able to make compost that looks and smells like the black rich soil in just three months. Some go to great lengths: turning their compost piles and adding grass clippings or manure to get their compost piles to heat up. Yet most of us never have a “textbook perfect pile”. I say, “So what?” I buy it by the truckload as I can’t make enough with kitchen scraps – and it’s not convenient to dig it out from under a pile of freshly pulled weeds.

 

That being said, all of us should have a compost pile, or more than one. Compost piles keep food scraps out of the waste stream, and weeds eventually break down and turn to that magical dark compost. But I say 2 or 3 years is a reasonable time to let a pile slowly digest its contents. In fact, I recently harvested some black gold from a pile I had made and abandoned about 20 years ago. I used it as soil for a new planting of hostas, and they seem very pleased it.

 

 

I have a dog, Daphne, a corgi that is quite a rascal. She loves to eat anything, and will roll in almost anything – the stinkier the better. I always need to have a way to keep her out of the compost pile that I use for kitchen scraps, and recently built a new one using pallets I got for free. Wood pallets are generally available – everything these days is shipped on them.

 

 

Finished compost pile

Finished compost bin

I decided to make a compost bin with a low profile – Daffy is short and not much of a jumper. I used a reciprocating saw to cut the pallets down to a more manageable size – instead of building a bin that is 4 feet tall, I only needed one half that height.

 

I placed one full-sized pallet on the ground and arranged four shortened pallets around it. The bottom pallet keeps the pile from sitting in collected water or on soggy soil in rainy times. Compost does not want to be soggy. I connected the four sides using building wire – either 14-2 or 12-2 wire is fine, or nylon rope would work. I just twisted the wire around the vertical corner pieces. When done, I put landscape fabric on the bottom to keep material from falling through between the slats.

 

What will go in that new compost pile? I’ll toss in vegetable by-products like carrot tops and moldy broccoli. Old flower arrangements. Any organic matter that can break down with time: stale bread, tea bags, egg shells, and peanut shells and corn husks will go in mine. But no meat products, vegetable oil, dog poop or kitty litter – the latter two could carry diseases or parasites.

 

 

Detail of corner connection

Detail of corner connection

According to the experts, most of what goes in a compost pile should be carbon-based: brown leaves and dried grass or weeds, for example. A little nitrogen-rich material should also be added – things like fresh cut green grass, cow or chicken manure, fresh vegetable scraps. The ideal ratio is 30 parts brown matter to 1 part green matter. But our kitchen waste is generally high in green matter, low in brown matter, so it doesn’t break down as well as it should. In addition to the kitchen compost, I have separate piles for garden waste and these are easier to get “cooking” and breaking down the organic matter.

 

What can you do to improve the balance in your kitchen compost? Rake up some dry lawn clippings and put a layer in the compost bin before adding a bucket of kitchen scraps. Or if you have a leaf pile, occasionally add some to the bin. You could even buy a bale of hay to layer into your compost bin. You are trying to encourage microorganisms to break down the vegetable material, and they need lots of carbon and only a little nitrogen to build their little bodies and reproduce.

 

A compost pile needs oxygen in order to encourage aerobic bacteria, which are the good ones. Anaerobic bacteria thrive in a low-oxygen environment and are the ones that produce foul odors. The smell of rotten eggs, for example, can be produced in a compost pile that is wet and compacted and doesn’t have a good carbon-nitrogen ratio. If yours smells bad, fluff it up and layer in some hay or dry leaves.

 

 

Daphne and the new compost bin

Daphne and the new compost bin

There are plastic compost bins available and even rotating compost bins. Those are great for urban gardeners – they do a great job of keeping out skunks and raccoons. But they are relatively expensive and do not necessarily make compost any faster than the simple bin described above.

 

If you really want fast action, you’ll need to have multiple bins and turn the fermenting compost from one to another, adding carbon or nitrogen as needed. A compost pile that is working well heats up past 130 degrees, killing most seeds. But, as I said in my first book, you may need to quit your day job to tend a compost pile that works perfectly. I’d rather spend my time weeding – or goofing off.

 

Henry Homeyer will not be answering questions this week. His web site is www.Gardening-guy.com. He is the author of 4 gardening books.

 

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Going on Vacation? What’s a Gardener to Do?

Posted on Wednesday, August 6, 2014 · Leave a Comment 



Sometimes life interferes with being a gardener. Here it is, mid-summer and most of my vegetables are nearly ready to be eaten or to be put up for the winter. But I was invited to a wedding of a dear friend in Tanzania, and I am going! So I will be leaving my gardens for nearly two weeks in August. If you are going away, there are things you can do that will help your garden thrive in your absence. Here are some of the things I am doing.

 

First, I am thinking about the deer. I have a vegetable plot this year that was lent to me nearby, but it is not adjacent to my house. At home the deer rarely bother my garden – there is plenty of activity every day, and a vicious corgi, Daphne, lurking around, ready to take them on. (Unless she is asleep indoors, which is most of the time). But this vegetable plot is more remote, and I have been battling deer all summer. Untended for 2 weeks? It might get munched to the ground.

 

Because the garden is about 250 feet long and 15 feet wide, I haven’t fenced it in. Fences 8 feet tall are the best defense against deer. Even light-weight bird fencing is generally effective, especially if you hang strips of cloth or reflective tape on the fencing so that they can see there is a fence.

 

Instead of fencing, I have tried various smelly things to make them think poorly of my garden. I tried hanging bars of Irish Spring soap, but that did not deter them. Then I sprayed Garlic Barrier on foliage. This is a garlic and water spray that comes in a quart bottle. Diluted and sprayed on, it is quite stinky, and deer, like vampires, generally avoid garlic. The garlic oils are supposed to penetrate the leaves, repelling insects. But why not deer, too? It can’t hurt, and if it repels some bugs, too, all the better. The directions suggest spraying every 2 weeks, so I’ll spray my plants just before I go.

 

Containers for coyote urine

Containers for coyote urine

The last resort, and one which so far this summer seems to have helped, is coyote urine. It is sold along with little plastic bottles with holes drilled in the sides near the top, cotton balls in the bottom, and wire loops for hanging. I poured some coyote urine on the cotton balls, and hung them from short forked sticks in the garden. Since I have done that, I’ve had no losses to deer in the garden. Deer are creatures of habit, and I am hoping they have decided that my big plot is one to avoid. We’ll see. I’ve also heard that aluminum pie plates hung on strings in the garden will ward off the deer, but haven’t tried them.

 

I have 50 sweet potato plants in that plot, and the deer ate some of the foliage the first night after I planted the slips (some of which had leaves). Most plants recovered, and I covered them with “row covers” to keep away the deer and to hold in heat. Row cover is a spun agricultural fabric that breathes and lets rain and air pass through it. I use stiff wire hoops to keep it above the plants and give them space to grow. So now my sweet potatoes are not available to the deer.

 

Row covers

Row covers

Writing this article in yet another thunder storm, I have to admit that I am not worried about watering my garden while I am away. Still, if you have a dry garden and we get a dry spell, there are timers that will turn you hose on and off . They are battery operated and will turn off and on every day, or every other day, or once a week for a predetermined period. I have used timers made by Melnor and they are easy to program and use. You just need to have sprinklers or soaker hoses set up to water your garden.

 

It helps to have a friend or neighbor who will turn the timer on if you get a dry period, or turn it off after a big rain. Presumably there are now phone apps that will allow you to turn timers on or off from a smart phone. I’m just not that smart – nor is my phone (which is not an old fashioned rotary, but close)..

 

Potted plants often suffer in August when people leave without giving them thought. It’s best to move them out of the sun to keep them cool and reduce their water needs. Give them a good soaking before you leave – I find submerging pots in a big bin of deep water is best. Hold them down until they stop bubbling.

 

And I know you are not going to like this piece of advice: weed your garden well before you leave. Yes, you’re busy getting ready to go. But if you let weeds get big, flower, and make seeds, you will be paying a price for a long time to come. Seeds can live a long time – some even for decades, or centuries. So have a good look around for weeds getting ready to produce seeds.

 

Lastly, remember if you offer your neighbor free beans or tomatoes or lettuce, they are more likely to come and fuss with your watering device, or even water the potted plants. And veggies need to be picked in order to keep on producing. Have a great trip!

 

Henry Homeyer will not be answering e-mail questions this month. His Web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com.

 

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Tomatoes

Posted on Wednesday, July 30, 2014 · Leave a Comment 



This has been, knock on wood, a great year for tomatoes. I planted my seeds indoors earlier than I usually do, which meant that my plants went in to the ground earlier, and bigger. And there were no late frosts, so I’m eating tomatoes earlier than most years. Cherry tomatoes started producing in early July, and I picked my first full sized tomato on July 16. Lots of sun and adequate rain have pushed them along. Barring an attack of late blight, I will have more than I need to feed myself all winter – if I process them now.

 

My mother and grandmother canned tomatoes. They worked in a hot kitchen in August and September turning homegrown tomatoes into canned tomatoes and sauce. In order to avoid the deadly disease, botulism, they boiled jars seemingly forever. But now, in the day of chest freezers, we can make sauce and not have to go through the canning process. You can make sauce and freeze it for use in the winter. And there are lots of other ways to save the harvest.

 

First, my favorite technique: freezing tomatoes whole. I call it the “no-work” method. Just place clean dry tomatoes in gallon freezer bags, suck out any excess air with an ordinary straw, and place the bags in the freezer on a cookie sheet. I generally get 9 large tomatoes into a gallon bag. After the tomatoes are frozen, you can take them off the cookie sheets and stack the bags.

 

When you are ready to use the tomatoes for a soup or stew, you can remove the skins easily, if you wish, by running them under hot water and giving them a quick rub. Halve the tomatoes and cut out their attachment points, chop and cook. If you let the tomatoes thaw they will be mushy and no good for sandwiches. But cooked? They’re great.

 

Last summer I tried roasting tomatoes in the oven, and was very pleased with the results. I cut tomatoes in half, and placed them in a shallow roasting pan and placed them in the oven at 350 degrees. I cooked them until the tomatoes caramelized and lost most of their moisture. Then I placed them in zipper bags, one layer thick and put them in the freezer. To avoid the need for scrubbing the roasting pan, I cooked them on a sheet of aluminum foil. These tomatoes worked fine in sandwiches in winter. I just put the frozen tomatoes in the toaster oven to thaw and heat, and put them on bread. Yum!

 

Excalibur dryer

Excalibur dryer

I grow a lot of cherry tomatoes each year – 10 plants or more. I eat them every meal in season, and snack on them between meals. My favorite variety is ‘Sun Gold’, a hybrid. What do I do with the vast numbers of these sweet cuties? For years I have been cutting them in half and dehydrating them. I’ve tried all sorts of dehydrators, and think I have found the best.

 

The machine I use is the Excalibur. This machine has 9 square trays, a heating element, a thermostat, a timer and a fan that sits behind the trays. The fan and heater location is key. This machine blows hot air across the trays as opposed to all the others I have used, which send hot air up from the bottom or down from the top. Either way, the tomatoes closest to the fan and heating element dry first, and those farther away dry more slowly. So one must rotate the trays, or take out the dry ones and continue to dry those that are still not fully dried.

 

The Excalibur also uses less electricity – 660 watts an hour, while the NESCO unit I used for years uses 1000 watts – but both take about the same time to dry a batch of tomatoes. The Excalibur also can hold more fruit per tray as the trays are square and the others are round.
I store the dried cherry tomatoes in zipper bags. They are fine on a shelf in the pantry, in the fridge, or, for long term storage, in the freezer. When I want to use them, I just toss them into a stir fry or stew, and these little nuggets bring a “Wow!” to the lips of my guests. If you don’t dry them to the crispy stage, but leave them a little chewy, you can even use them in salads and sandwiches.

 

Lastly, I make a lot of tomato paste. It’s easy and allows me to use chunks of tomatoes that had bad spots that needed to be cut out. I core tomatoes over the sink and squeeze out juice and seeds. Then I pop them into the food processor and puree them, skins and all. I pour the liquid into a heavy enameled cast iron pot, and slowly boil the slurry until it is thick enough to stand up a spoon in it. I let it cool all night, uncovered, and spoon the paste into ice cube trays. Once it’s frozen I bag it in zipper bags. Then I can get just the right amount of tomato paste and never waste any – I just use 1, 2 or 3 cubes, depending on my recipe.
It is still work to put up the harvest, but the methods above are a lot less work than canning tomatoes in jars in a hot –water bath. And come winter? There is nothing better than eating your own tomatoes.

 

Henry is the author of 4 gardening books and a children’s fantasy-adventure called Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet. His web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com.

 

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Mulching

Posted on Wednesday, July 23, 2014 · Leave a Comment 



I love the musical Porgy and Bess, especially the song, “Summertime,” with its catchy refrain, “Summertime and the livin’ is easy”. Clearly Gershwin was a) not a gardener, or b) he mastered the art of mulching. Mulching makes the summer easy, if done right. No mulch? The summer is spent weeding and watering. If you’re still weeding, it’s time to mulch.

 

My vegetable garden gets mulched in June as soon as the soil has warmed up. I take a sharp hoe and slice off any weeds in the walkways, and lay down 6 pages of newspapers. Then I cover the papers with mulch hay or straw. Straw is supposed to be free of seeds as it is the stems of oats or other grains that have been threshed. But I often find the straw germinates and sends up green shoots.

 

 

Mulching with hay

Mulching with hay

Hay, on the other hand, is grass that is grown for animal food and harvested with stems and seeds intact. But mulch hay is much cheaper than straw – a quarter the cost – and I find it doesn’t generate any more undesirable growth than straw. The fact that I lay down newspapers helps – it keeps the seeds out of the soil until the end of the season.

 

Big plants like tomatoes and broccoli get the same treatment as the walkways. I do leave some space right next to the stalk of each plant that gets no newspaper – so a light rain shower can get moisture to the roots. Little plants like onions or carrots get hay alongside their rows, but no newspaper. You could tear the papers and lay them down, and I have done it, but it isn’t worth the bother.

 

Leaves collected in the fall are excellent mulch. I run them over with the lawnmower, which makes them more compact and less likely to blow around. An inch of chopped leaves is an adequate layer of mulch. Pine needles are also good mulch, despite the fact that they have the reputation of being too acidic. In my experience they are fine – any biologically active soil with earthworms, fungi and bacteria will breakdown the needles over time without making your soil too acidic.

 

I don’t generally recommend using wood chips or shredded bark in the vegetable garden, but do use it in flower gardens. Vegetable gardens tend to have rows that move from year to year, and I don’t really want wood chips mixed into the soil. Flower gardens have more or less permanent plantings, and the wood chips stay put.

 

Some gardeners worry that the microorganisms breaking down wood chips will use up nitrogen from the soil, causing a nitrogen deficiency. If that were true, a lot of flower gardens would have flowers with yellowed, anemic-looking leaves. If you want, you can sprinkle a layer of organic fertilizer on the soil before you mulch. Organic fertilizers are made from natural ingredients such as seaweed, chicken litter, oyster shells, peanut hulls or other natural ingredients, and all break down slowly, which is an advantage in most applications – including under mulch.

 

Be advised that many of the wood or bark mulches sold in bags are “color enhanced”. That means they have used dyes of some sort to make the mulch dark – or even bright orange. I am an organic gardener, so I won’t use dyed mulch. I don’t know what is used to make the colors, so I avoid it. Many garden centers sell all natural mulch in bulk, which is much less expensive than buying it by the bag. All you need is a pickup truck – or a friend that has one. Cedar mulch is the most expensive, but I believe it lasts the longest before it breaks down.

 

Cocoa hulls are sold as mulch with very fine particles of organic matter. This mulch looks very tidy. Mostly. Usually some mold will appear on it after a couple of weeks, but then that goes away. And a nice layer of it will make your yard smell like you’re cooking brownies. That’s fine, but some dogs have been known to eat the cocoa mulch and get sick or even die. It’s probably not for homes with Labrador retrievers. And the mulch can be slippery when wet. Buckwheat hulls are another fine, fancy mulch. It is only sold in bags, and costs a fortune. I love the look, but can’t afford to use it.

 

Landscape fabric comes in a variety of types, all of which purport to keep down weeds and allow air and moisture to pass through. Fabric needs to be covered with mulch – generally wood chips – and I find that eventually some weeds grow in the mulch and get tangled in the fabric.

 

One final word of caution: don’t apply too much mulch. More is not better. Two inches of bark mulch is fine, but a five -inch layer will prevent moisture from getting to your soil in a light rain shower. And plants get their oxygen from the soil, so you don’t want to create a barrier that will keep gases from being exchanged. Mulch won’t control everything. Annual weeds? Yes. But established perennial weeds like goutweed or witch grass cannot be controlled with mulch. Still, mulch can save you lots of work and make the livin’ easy. Or easier, anyway.

 

Henry Homeyer is the author of 4 gardening books. His web Site is www.Gardening-Guy.com.

 

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Good Bugs, Bad Bugs

Posted on Wednesday, July 16, 2014 · Leave a Comment 



Many gardeners seem to think that any UFI (Unidentified Flying Insect) is a potential threat to their tomatoes or the spinach. When in doubt, they swat it, squish it or submerge it. But most bugs are not bad – and many are helpful.

 

We all know that lady bugs are good. They eat aphids and in fact, some enterprising businesses are selling lady bugs by the thousand. My advice? Don’t bother buying them. If you’re not spraying your flowers and vegetables with insecticides, you will naturally have some ladybugs and other aphid eaters. Of course insecticides will throw off the balance of nature, and the pests may dominate. But a good healthy garden should attract beneficials like ladybugs in the quantities that you need. Bring in a thousand? They might fly away the same day.

 

According to the lovely little guide book, Good Bug Bad Bug: Who’s Who, What They Do, and How to Manage Them Organically by Jessica Walliser, a ladybug can eat up to 5,000 aphids in its lifetime. But there are plenty of other good bugs. This book, by the way, is simple, well illustrated and sturdy enough to take to the garden. I recommend it.

 

The assassin bug is just that: a voracious predator that will eat cabbage worms, potato beetles, cucumber beetles, cutworms, earwigs, Japanese beetles, Bean beetles, tomato hornworms, and more. They are generally black, and about half an inch long with a broad body and bristly front legs. They have a sharp curved beak they use to penetrate other insects, allowing them to inject a poison to kill them and turn their insides into a “smoothie” they can drink. They can sometimes pierce human flesh if handled roughly.

 

Lacewings are beautiful green flying insects with diaphanous wings. You’ve probably seen them on your window screens, attracted to the lights – they’re about an inch long. But it is their larvae that do they work in the garden – they eat about 100 aphids a day! The larvae are brown and white with big mandibles for grasping prey. They are half an inch long, and fast moving. The adults eat nectar and pollen of flowers and weeds including dandelions, Queen Anne’s lace and goldenrod so a few weeds are good to have – alonmg with plenty of flowers.

 

Parasitic wasps are generally small – from 1/32 of an inch to half an inch – but do great work. There are some 200 different kinds, according to Good Bug Bad Bug. Many have noticeable ovipositors for laying eggs, but don’t be confused and think they are stingers – these beneficial insects do not sting. They generally lay their eggs in the bodies, larvae or eggs of other insects. Once their eggs hatch, the young parasitic wasps feed on their prey.

 

One type of parasitic wasp feeds on the tomato hornworm. If you see small white “grains of rice” on the back of a hornworm, these are actually larvae of a wasp. Don’t kill the hornworm! Just move it off, away from your tomatoes, and let the wasp larvae do their thing. Like the lacewings, the adults feed on nectar and pollen, so a diverse garden with continuous blooms is a good attractant.

 

One of the things I like about the book Good Bug Bad Bug is that it offers many solutions to an insect problem. Row cover, a breathable spun fabric, is offered as a solution to striped cucumber beetles, and it reminds the reader that cukes are insect pollinated so you can’t keep it on once your vines start to produce blossoms. The book also suggests interplanting with marigolds, catnip or tansy or putting out yellow sticky cards to catch the culprits. Mulch, the book says, will help keep females from contact with the soil where they lay their eggs, too. I didn’t know that.

 

Potato beetle

Potato beetle

Potato bugs are my current nemesis. I plant my potatoes much later than my neighbors (in late June) which often means the bugs are already busy by the time my spuds come along. This year they have found me anyway. Every day I go down the row of potatoes, flipping the foliage over to look for adults and orange egg masses underneath the leaves. If I spot eggs, I remove that part of the leaf and put it in soapy water. This sounds tedious, but is actually just a 5 minute job for my 65 plants – and it makes a huge difference.

 

Diligence counts: I skipped a couple of days of patrol, and found potato bug larvae eating my plants. And picking 50 larvae is a lot more work than removing one leaf. So I shall keep up my vigilance. And if the larvae seem to be winning, I can always spray a biological control called Bt. This is a bacterium that will control them, but damage nothing else. But not all Bt is the same: ask for one that controls potato beetles (San Diego or tenebrionis).

 

Try to get over your aversion to bugs in the garden, if you have one. Just because a bug is unknown to you is no reason to squish it. It may be an assassin bug, ready to help you!

 

Henry Homeyer is the author of 4 gardening books. His Web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com. He is also a garden designer, gardening coach and public speaker.

 

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