Dealing with Drought or Watering 101

When it comes to watering, Mother Nature generally does it best. But as I write this, we haven’t had any rain in over a week and the soil is dry. Bone dry, and I am watering my vegetable garden most evenings.


In general, I don’t like overhead watering systems. Yes, they do mimic a rain storm, but they waste a lot of water, and water the walkways and weeds as well as the plants. So long as the soil is not parched, I like to water plants using a watering wand.


My watering wand is a 30-inch long aluminum tube with a watering rose on the end and a shut-off valve that allows me to increase or decrease the flow of water. I like those made by Dramm, a company that specializes in watering devices and has figured out how to deliver lots of water while not disturbing young plants.


In the vegetable garden, I walk up the rows directing the water around my tomatoes or irrigating the lettuce. The wand allows me to spray water close to the ground level – it’s not falling from waist high, the way a nozzle on the end of a hose would.


But in times like this, an extended period of hot and dry weather, I know I need to water each bed entirely, from side to side. Why is that? Imagine taking a sopping wet kitchen sponge and dropping it in a bucket of clean kitty litter. Then pour more litter over it. What happens? In five minutes the sponge would be dry. All the moisture would wick away. Your soil is a bit like that litter. It will absorb the moisture that you gave to the roots of your plants. So you need to soak the soil around your plants, not just at the rootball.


If you’re going to plant anything now, water the soil deeply several hours before doing so. It is easier to drench an empty bed than one with tiny seeds that might wash away, or little seedlings that can be harmed by a deluge.


Another effective way to keep plants moist in times of drought is to mulch. Mulch will keep the sun and breezes off the soil so that moisture does not evaporate so quickly. In the vegetable garden I cover most everything with newspaper – four to six sheets thick. I generally put the papers in a wheelbarrow and soak them first so they are less likely to blow away as I spread them out. Then I cover the papers with a thick layer of mulch hay or straw.


Straw is supposed to be seed-free, while hay is not. Straw is the by-product of threshing a grain – oats or barley, perhaps. But it comes from far away on a truck and costs about $10 a bale. Mulch hay, on the other hand, I can buy from a local farmer for $3 a bale. The hay is grown as feed for dairy cattle, but if it gets ruined by rain and the cows won’t eat it, it’s sold as mulch hay. Since I use 5 to 8 bales of mulch every year I rarely use straw.


One of the great things about the newspapers is that they keep most of the hay seeds out of the soil – or at least until late in the season when most plants are big and less threatened by weeds and grasses. I know that my earthworms love to eat the newspapers and maybe they eat the hay seeds, too.


I get e-mails from readers every time I suggest using newspapers in the garden. “What about the inks?” they write. In the old days inks were dangerous – they contained heavy metals. But now the inks are made from soy products. And yes, the paper making process might leave some stray chemicals in the paper itself, but I haven’t seen anything scary about it. I have read that one should avoid glossy colored inserts to the paper, or magazines. Cardboard is fine.


How do you know when you’ve watered enough? Dig down in the soil. It should be dark and moist for 6 inches after watering. In general, plants do fine with an inch of water a week, either from the sky or from your hose. But if you are using an overhead watering device, you probably will not get an even distribution of water. Put out cat food cans all over the garden to catch the water to see if areas got less water.


If you see your plants starting to droop, you know they’re thirsty. Today my bee balm, a perennial flower, is wilting. I didn’t rush to water it as soon as I saw this, as I know the plant is resilient and the roots are well established. Tonight, if I have time, I might give that bed some water. But if I saw my tomatoes wilting, I’d water right away. They’ve only been in the ground for about 3 weeks, so the roots are not extensive yet.


Always try to keep water off the leaves of plants. On a hot sunny day, drops of water can act like a magnifying glass, burning spots on leaves. And some fungal diseases require moisture in order to penetrate leaves and infect plants.


Watering is not rocket science. Keep the soil from drying out, particularly if you have seeds in the ground waiting to germinate. But don’t turn your soil into mud, either. Plants did fine before we invented hoses – but hoses sure are handy in times like this!


Read Henry’s twice-a-week blog at He is the author of 4 gardening books and a children’s chapter book. His web site is


How to Create a Secret Space for Children

My sister Ruth Anne and I spent a lot of time on my grandfather’s farm in Spencer, Massachusetts when we were young. Grampy grew the most fabulous cukes, carrots and tomatoes – and flowers that would almost make the “faint of heart” swoon. I loved my time there.


One of the best features, on a hot afternoon, was a huge oval of forsythia bushes that enclosed a space where we could hide from adults and stay cool. I recently re-created such a space for my grandkids.


Kids like to have places that are secret and private. These days “helicopter parents” are said to be the norm. Even if you are not one, you might want to grow plants that will allow you to be nearby in case of emergency, but allow children the semblance of privacy.


So here is what I did: I planted 3 fast-growing willows about 10 feet apart. The one I planted is called ‘Hakuru-Nashiki’. At this time of year the leaves have pinkish tips, with white and green on them. Each of my shrubs had 3 stems when I bought it, and grew taller and wider each year. Now, 10 or more years later, they form a single mass of foliage about 15 feet tall. But the center of the planting is rather empty – a perfect place to make a “kid’s cave”.


To start, I entered the thicket, pruners and loppers in hand. I removed anything dead, or anything that was a potential “eye-gouger” – for me, or for a child. It didn’t take long to create a little cathedral with a domed ceiling full of brightly colored leaves.


Next I weeded out the floor of the space: there were ferns, brambles, some grasses and weeds. The soil was moist and most plants pulled easily. I didn’t bother pulling the grasses, but came in with my push mower and mowed them down.


I wanted to leave some vegetation around the edges of the space so that one could look out, but still feel secluded. There were some big iris plants growing along the stream edge that provided a screen. Years ago a friend offered to let me dig up some “nice yellow pond iris.” Little did I know, but that was an invasive iris, Iris pseudacorus. I tried digging it out, but like many invasives, that’s not possible. Even a scrap of root will grow back. It has spread, both by root and by seed. I have given up trying to get rid of it. It did make a nice screen for the edge of this new cave.


I like the willow as the structure for this hidey-hole. The branches arch up, touching at their apex. But other plants would work, too, but leave an open sky above. Lilacs, would work, for example, but take longer than the willows. And forsythia, I know works fine.


Common ninebark is a very fast growing shrub with a very dense habit that easily gets to be 8 to 10 feet tall. It blooms now, in June. I have a cultivar called ‘Diablo’ which has reddish foliage, but there are others including some with standard green leaves and a bright yellow-green leafed one called ‘Dart’s Gold’.


Ninebark will grow in sun or partial shade, wet or dry, good soil or bad. A cluster of these would create a nice enclosure. Each spreads 3 to 6 feet. My mature Diablo is only 18 inches wide at the base, but is over 6 feet wide at the top – which is 8 feet off the ground. I will prune it back, as I do each year, after it finishes blooming.


Don’t want to wait for shrubs to get big? Make a teepee of 8-foot poles tied at the top, and plant vines. Scarlet runner bean is a nice one and your kids can eat the beans! Morning glories are nice vines with colorful flowers. Purple hyacinth beans have lovely purplish leaves, and brilliant flowers, but take a long time to germinate. I would buy plants already started at my local garden center for those.


Many years ago my friend Emily Cromwell and her husband Mark Woodcock built a sunflower fort for her boys, Moe and Carlos when they were 4 and 6 years old (they’ve both graduated from college now, I believe). They marked out a rectangle in the lawn about 8 by 10 feet. Then they removed a 2-foot wide strip of sod all along the rectangle. They loosened the soil, and then planted 2 rows of sunflowers – with the help of the boys. They planted big sunflowers near the inside of the fort, shorter ones on the outside.


The nice thing about a sunflower fort is, for you helicopter parents, that you can see right in. But for young children, it will still seem like their own private space.


Kids spend too much time indoors. Create a special place to play, to read, to dream – and they will be outdoors of their own volition.


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Tips for Planting, Weeding and Edging Your Gardens

Are you still planting your vegetables? Here are a few tips. If your broccoli seedlings are a bit tall and floppy at planting time, you can bury part of the stem so they don’t flop over. I pinch of a lower leaf or two, and then plant the root ball 3 inches or so below the soil surface. Same for Brussels sprouts. Tall tomatoes I often plant sideways after I remove 2 or more of the lower branches. The buried portion will send out roots, which is helpful to the plant later on.


Most gardeners who start seedlings indoors plant 2 or more seeds in each cell, thinking that at least one will germinate. But what to do if they both did? I advise snipping off one of the two early on. But I had a six-pack of kale seedlings with 2 nice plants per cell that had somehow escaped my scissors. For some I snipped off one seedling at planting time, thus avoiding any disruption of the roots.


For others, particularly if the seedlings were growing in opposite corners of the growing cell, I separated them and planted both. To do this I hold the rootball in two hands, thumbs on the soil surface and nearly touching. Then I push my thumbs down, and gently pull them away from each other – and tearing the rootball in half. Sometimes the roots are so entwined that the break, other times they just pull away. Either is fine. Roots recover easily.


But what can you do if you have too many melons or an overabundance of okra? It’s very hard to throw them in the compost pile. Call your friends and neighbors, ask if they need some more plants. If you still have too many plants, deliver them to the community garden nearest you. Most have websites and contact info. I found one that will drive to my door to pick up vegetable and flower starts.


The bottom line is this: you don’t have to plant every seedling you grew or bought. You might have to buy a 6-pack of kale when you only want 2 or 3 plants. It’s okay to put the others in the compost pile if you can’t find a taker. That’s better than cramming them all into a small space.


After a recent day of heavy rain I spent much time weeding. Right after a rain when the soil is soaked is a good time to do so. Deep-rooted plants like thistles or dandelions are easier to pull when the soil is moist – or even soggy. If it’s soggy, of course, your feet can compact the soil, so stay on the lawn and work from the edges.


I have learned all the weeds that grow in my garden: some by Latin name, some by common name, a few I just call “Bob” or “Larry”. No matter. What is important is to know their roots. Annual weeds like jewel weed pull easily, all the roots coming with a scratch of my CobraHead weeder and a tug from above.


Other weeds, like perennial dandelions and burdocks, have tap roots that can go down 6 to 12 inches. For those I use a shovel to loosen the earth. I push it into the soil 4 inches from the weed, pull back on the handle, and the soil – along with the roots – loosen. Then with a tug the whole system comes out. If you break off a tap root, the weed will grow back, so it’s worthwhile taking the time to do it right.


Crabgrass, by the way, grows well in compacted soil – but lawn grass will not. That’s why it grows where you walk the most. Avoid it, if it bugs you, by putting down pavers to walk on. And if you set your mower at 3 or 4 inches the good grass may shade out the crab grass that is trying to establish itself now, in the early summer.


Ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) – also known as Creeping Charlie or Jenny – is a pest to many of us because it grows in lawns and flower beds and will even grow in pure mulch! But it pulls easily and smells vaguely minty. Its leaves have scalloped edges and the flowers are generally a purplish blue. It sends down roots easily as it creeps into flower beds. I follow the roots with the tip of my CobraHead weeder, and they come out easily.


Formal garden edging

Formal garden edging

Edging the border of a flower bed makes it look tidy and professionally maintained. Basically edging means cutting a sharp edge to the bed with a shovel or an edging tool. By removing some soil after you have cut the edge, you create a little “moat”. Lawn grass sends roots exploring for new territory – but if it finds air, it stops growing. It can save a lot of time weeding out grasses later on.


If you have a straight flower bed, pull a string taught to establish the line you will edge. If you want to create curves, use your hose. Just lay it out in the lawn to establish the exact curves you want. I like to make flower beds bulge out into the lawn rather than follow straight lines. Just be sure that when you expand your beds and establish new boundaries, your lawnmower can follow the lines you establish


I try not to get too compulsive with my weeding. I get to the weeds when I feel like it. I try to pull them before they flower and set seed, but – obviously – that doesn’t always happen. That assures, however, there is always something to do in the garden.


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Dealing with Pests and Diseases

Posted on Tuesday, May 31, 2016 · Leave a Comment 

I understand why many gardeners shop on Death Row. That’s what I call the pesticide aisle at the garden center. Insecticides, fungicides, herbicides are sold in cheerful colorful bags, often with pictures of blooming flowers on the bag. I don’t shop there and try to avoid even walking down the aisle because the smell of death – poison – is often in the air.


Leaves eaten by striped cucumber beetle

Leaves eaten by striped cucumber beetle

Gardeners shop on Death Row because something is threatening their roses or their broccoli. Flea beetles making holes in the cabbage? Nuke ‘em. Japanese beetles? Gotta kill ‘em. I get the urge, too. But there are alternatives.


Let’s start with something easy: I drape a light-weight gauzy film of agricultural fabric over plants to keep bugs from physically getting to my plants. This cloth allows sun and rain to pass through, but not bugs. It’s called row cover or by trade names like Reemay and Agribon. There are other brand names, too.


Row cover comes in different weights, and some heavier types can be used to keep in a little heat at night, holding off frost. But its best use is to keep plants bug-free. I use it over my vine crops like cucumbers and squash as they are very vulnerable to a pest called the striped cucumber beetle.


Row cover over young plant

Row cover over young plant

Row cover is not perfect: striped cucumber beetles live in the soil, and sometimes will appear under the row cover, but mostly it prevents them from getting to the plants. To be on the safe side, I start cukes and squash inside the house 3 weeks or more before planting time (or buy a 6-pack of starts). That gives me good-sized plants that can survive some beetle attack.


Generally I just drape the row cover over the cucumber plants and pin down the edges with special staples sold for the purpose. It is light enough that it will just float on top. But since vine crops are insect pollinated, I need to take it off once the plants start to bloom.


Hoops are sold to support row cover, too. Five foot sections of #10 wire are sold for the purpose. Just poke one end into the soil, bend it, and poke in the other end. This is great for keeping flea beetles and cabbage moths of broccoli, cabbage and related plants.


Repellents can help to keep insects off plants. Liquid fish fertilizer has worked for me to reduce the number of Japanese beetles on roses and other decorative plants, though I wouldn’t use it on vegetables. Garlic Barrier is product made from garlic and citric acid that can be diluted and spread on plants to repel insects. It is rated for use on vegetables, and has no flavor once it has dried. In any case, you must get the repellents sprayed before the insects show up, and need to re-apply regularly. It is fine for use by organic gardeners.


Traps sound good, but generally are not. Japanese beetle traps use a sex hormone to attract the beetles, but unfortunately they attract many more beetles than they catch. And those pesky beetles like to have a snack before investigating the scent of sex. Give them to your neighbors, perhaps, but don’t use them!


Hand-picking bugs really does work, particularly if you are diligent when they first appear. Pick potato beetles every day as soon as you see them (or their larvae). Look under the leaves for orange egg masses, too. Don’t let a second generation get started! Get them early, and avoid trouble later on.


Keep these points in mind if you want have a good garden and healthy plants:


1) Healthy plants growing in favorable conditions (such as the right amount of sun, and moisture in the soil) are less susceptible to diseases.

2) Select disease-resistant cultivars when possible. Modern hybrids are often bred for disease resistance.

3) Don’t over-fertilize. Too much nitrogen gives fast green growth, but promotes weak tissue that is more susceptible to diseases.

4) Try to keep leaves dry when watering. Moisture on leaves, particularly at night, helps some fungal diseases to get established. A hand-held watering wand can direct water to the roots; overhead sprinklers get everything wet.

5) Prune off diseased leaves and dispose of them in the trash. Never let diseased plants over-winter in the garden. Keep your garden clean. Clean up in fall and spring to remove diseased plant matter.

6) Lastly, don’t overreact. Most fungal diseases won’t kill a healthy plant that is well planted in good soil. Don’t rush to spray chemicals. Once a leaf is infected, you can’t fix it, only live with it or cut it off.


As an organic gardener I accept that sometimes bugs or diseases win. I no longer grow Oriental or Asiatic lilies because of a beautiful red beetle that attacks them. I can’t control the pest by hand picking. That’s okay, I grow angel’s trumpet (Datura spp.), a lily-like flower that is even better – it blooms for many weeks with gorgeous big white flowers). And it doesn’t need chemical poisons to thrive.


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Plants for Butterflies, Bees and Native Pollinators

Posted on Monday, May 23, 2016 · Leave a Comment 

Butterflies are the poster children of the environmental movement. Everybody loves them, and wants to see them thrive. But do you know what you can do to help? It’s quite simple, really. For starters, make sure that your environment includes a wide variety of plants that supply nectar and pollen. And even city dwellers can help.


Monarch on asters

Monarch on asters

Let’s say you don’t have a garden, or that you have limited time and/or space. Or you just have a lawn. You can start by planting some annual flowers in a pot, or buying a hanging planter at the garden center. Most planters sold are full of gorgeous flowers that will bloom all summer. All you have to do is water them.


If watering is too much trouble, transfer your purchased plants into a “self-watering” container. These are pots that have a water reservoir in the base that will allow water to wick up to the plants in the container. Get one about the same size as your purchased planter, along with some potting soil. The potting soil should fill in extra space if your self-watering container is larger than the hanging pot. Once you have it set up, you will just need to fill the reservoir once a week.


Another thing that anyone can do is buy a bird bath. Yes, a bird bath can be useful for butterflies, too. They need a regular source of water. Butterflies love the minerals found in water in mud puddles, so you could dig a little hole and keep it full for them. Maybe your dog, if she’s like mine, will wallow in it, too. Hmmm…


I have a bird bath that is never used by birds, even after I put stones in the middle for them to perch on. Why? Someone finally pointed out to me that I have a stream just 50 feet from the bath, which is more inviting for the birds. But I like the looks of the blue ceramic bird bath, which I now call my ”butterfly bath”.


What else can you do? Start by swearing off pesticides. I know it’s easy to spray Japanese beetles or potato beetles, but chemicals that kill one kind of bug will kill others, including butterflies and the caterpillars that become butterflies. So hand pick your pests, or agree to let them live. Many insect pests have a short life span and aren’t really as bad as you might think.


Hiking through France I have often been struck by the number and variety of birds, butterflies and pollinators along the trail. I attribute that to the fact that farmers in France allow hedgerows to separate farm fields. Flowering plants like hawthorns, blackberries and wild cherries are not mowed down, but allowed to grow – and provide space for birds and insects to nest in and thrive.


Here in America President Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, told farmers to “get big or get out”, encouraging them to plant commodity crops every square inch, “fencerow to fencerow”. That policy has affected our birds and butterflies over the years. But on a small scale, we can allow native plants to grow and blossom along our property lines. Leave wild spaces wherever you can.


If you want more butterflies, think first about the caterpillars that will become butterflies. What do they like? Dill and fennel are among the best plants for many species. Hollyhocks, lupine, milkweed and butterfly weed, thistles and willows are all good for caterpillars of various sorts.


Pansies are used by butterlies

Pansies are used by butterlies

Then, for nectar and pollen, think about creating a garden that blooms from early spring to late fall. Annual flowers are great because most will do just that. Alyssum, calendula, cosmos, marigolds, nasturtiums, pansies, verbenas and zinnias are some that are especially good.


Of the perennial flowers, here are some good ones: asters, bee balm, daylilies, delphinium, dianthus, globe thistle, hollyhocks, Joe Pye weed, lavender, liatris (gayfeather), oregano, phlox, purple coneflower, sage, scabiosa, sedums, Shasta daisy and yarrow.


Weeds are good for butterflies, too. You know milkweed is beloved by monarchs. Queen Anne’s lace is loved by many. Towards fall I often see goldenrod just full of bees and butterflies. And not all goldenrod is 5 feet tall and aggressive. You can actually purchase tidy ones like‘Fireworks’ (a variety of Solidago rugosa), or a small shade-loving one, Solidago caesia. Talk to your local nursery – they can get them from North Creek Nursery in Landenberg, Pennsylvania (wholesale only).


The very best plant for butterflies is probably butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii). This is a shrub that is generally hardy only to Zone 5, meaning that temperatures colder than minus 20 will kill it. In warmer zones it can spread aggressively and even be considered an invasive pest. But is great for butterflies, and often will survive in Zone 4, just dying back to the ground each year, but blooming late in the summer. It can be a large shrub, but there are smaller varieties, too.


Butterfly bush

Butterfly bush

Remember: butterflies and bees need nectar or pollen – from spring dandelions to late fall-blooming witchhazel. You can do your part – and enjoy seeing both your flowers and the butterflies, too.


To learn about bumblebees – all of them you see right now are queens – go to Henry’s blog: While there you can sign up for an e-mail alert every time Henry posts.





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More on Growing Great Veggies

Posted on Monday, May 16, 2016 · Leave a Comment 

This year Mother Nature, if she were a middle school student, would be at best a tease, and at worst a bully. Or maybe the Wicked Witch of the West. She gives us warm and sunny – then threats of snow or hail. Come on, Spring, let’s get with the program. We have veggies we want to plant!


Corn seeds planted in plug tray indoors

Corn seeds planted in plug tray indoors

Recently I wrote a column that promised tips on growing vegetables “A to Z: Artichoke to Zucchini” – but didn’t finish the B’s and skipped to zucchini. Huh. Today I’ll be less ambitious: The last of the B’s and most of the C’s. There really are a lot of great veggies we can grow.


Beets are best started outdoors once the soil temperature has warmed to 60 degrees or even warmer. Yes, they grow well in cool temperatures, but are slow to germinate in cold soil. Plant 2 to 3 inches apart, and be prepared to thin them in a month to 3 to 4 inches apart. Each “seed” is actually a seed capsule containing 2 to 6 seeds. They like soil that is near neutral in pH, so if you have acidic soil, add a little limestone. And they are deep rooted, so plant in fluffy soil for best results.


Hoping to jump the gun this year, I planted some beets in flats indoors on April 10. I started them on an electric seed warming mat but only got 20 percent germination, and the plants have long stems and are flopping over – even with bright fluorescent lights over them. I won’t do it again. I’ll plant mine outdoors this week.


Carrots also want fluffy light soil – and few if any stones. Comb through the soil carefully to get out rocks – I use a CobraHead weeder for that. Add lots of compost and some bagged organic fertilizer at planting time and again in early July.


Carrot seeds are tiny, but it’s worth your time to plant them individually, or nearly so. It will save a lot of time thinning them later on. Put seeds in the palm of one hand, and push one away from the rest with a pencil or pocket knife. Pick it up, plant it, and repeat. Tedious, yes. I like to plant them about an inch and a half apart, and thin to 3 inches when the thinnings are big enough to be worth eating.


Cauliflower is fussy. If it gets too hot or too cold it will “button” and not form a proper head. And unlike broccoli, cauliflower makes no side shoots (with rare exceptions). There is a purple one that I have grown, gorgeous in the garden but it turns gray when cooked.


Likewise, I don’t grow celery. It attracts slugs, gets woody and tough if the soil dries out, and is generally unsatisfactory. But I’m a serious cook and often need that celery flavor. Instead, I grow celeriac, also known as celery root. This is a great root crop that is pest free and stores for a long time. It’s funny looking with lots of roots that I cut off the bulb. Then I chop or grate it.




Celeriac, unfortunately, is not often sold in 6-packs at the garden centers. But it’s worth asking for it as the seeds germinate slowly and take a long time to get big. I planted mine on April 10 and they are just an inch tall 5 weeks later. Still, it will grow well into the fall so you could try planting seeds. Celeriac needs soil with plenty of moisture all summer.


I avoided growing corn for decades, instead I bought just a couple of ears at a time. I’m a bit like a raccoon: I tend to glut on it when there’s plenty in the garden ‘cause it’s so darn tasty! But for the past 2 years I have grown it. Here’s what I have discovered: you do need to plant it in blocks of 4 rows to get good pollination. And it needs plenty of supplemental nitrogen to do well. Last year I ran out of fertilizer and thought that since the soil was good, it would do fine. But corn in that section was short and spindly.


Fencing is probably the best to keep out coons, but I also used some solar powered blinking red lights that are said to scare them off ( Those are touted as deer repellents, too. I had some raccoon damage, but I probably needed more of them as the corn patch was very long. You need a minimum of 4 units to point in every direction.


Cucumbers are a summer favorite of mine, and I’ve already started some seeds indoors. They’ll go outside in mid-June after frost and when the soil is nice and warm, say 65 degrees. I used to plant seeds outdoors, but the plants were often killed by striped cucumber beetles that would strip off all leaves in a single night. Now I plant them when they have vines 6 to 12 inches long with some nice big leaves.


If you have had trouble with beetles but want to direct-seed your vine crops, you can cover the hills with row cover, also called Reemay. It is a thin agricultural fabric that breathes and lets sunshine and rain through. But sometimes the beetles, which emerge from the soil, are already waiting for you before you put it down. Be sure to rotate your planting sites for vine crops like cukes.


Mother Nature, if you’re listening: I’ve had it with this weather. Don’t make me release the flying monkeys.


Henry is now blogging twice a week. See the blog at You can sign up to get an e-mail alert every time Henry posts something.



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Building a Hot Box for Early Spring Greens

Posted on Monday, May 9, 2016 · Leave a Comment 

Is your lettuce lagging? Your spring greens tired of cold, gray days? You can make a self-heating “hot box” in your garden using a cold frame, some fresh horse manure and some hard work. Lots of hard work, actually. But your lettuce and spinach will reward you sooner rather than later.


Cold frame in place on hot box base

Cold frame in place on hot box base

A month ago I got a cold frame from Gardener’s Supply Company ( in Burlington, Vermont. It is a nifty 8-foot by 2-foot cedar box with a slanting sides and a clear polycarbonate top that is designed to capture the sun’s heat and warm the soil inside. It assembles in an hour with just a screwdriver or screw gun. I placed it in my garden facing southwest for maximum solar gain.


Inside the cold frame I put a radio-frequency thermometer that sends the temperature to me inside my house. I found that on sunny days, with the top panels closed, that the temperature easily hit 100 degrees, or even more. It has a prop stick for each of the two opening doors on top, allowing one to vent the heat on warm days. Or you can open the top completely for hot days. It did a great job of warming the top inch or two of soil.


Lettuce and spinach can take some frost, so it didn’t matter much that at night the cold frame only kept the air temperature 3 or 4 degrees warmer than the outside air, which occasionally dropped into the mid-twenties. But I wanted an even warmer environment for my small greens.


Back during WWII when folks really grew much of their own food, people made not only cold frames, but also “hot boxes”. And I had tried it, too, some 20 years ago. The principle is easy: bury fermenting horse manure beneath a cold frame, and the heat will rise, warming the soil and air above it. I forgot just how much work that entailed.


The first challenge was to find horse manure that was not mostly bedding. Harrumph! Horses tend to be pampered these days. But I found a horse breeder who had some good fresh manure that was not full of hay or shavings. He loaded a scoop into the back of my aging pick-up truck, though that was more than I really needed. Four or five wheelbarrows is plenty.


Filling the hot box

Filling the hot box

Next I dug pit a foot deep and the size of the cold frame. That took an hour or so of hard work. I set the good top soil to one side, the subsoil to the other. Then I lined the pit with 2-inch thick Styrofoam (blueboard) insulation. Why? To keep the cold soil from cooling down my fermenting manure. I wanted the manure to stay hot so it would  keep fermenting. The temperature of the manure I unloaded from my truck was in the mid-fifties, but the next day, when I was ready for my project, it had heated up to the mid-eighties. Yes!


For compost to heat up, I knew, one needs both nitrogen and carbon-based materials. Manure has plenty of nitrogen, hay and leaves are rich in carbon. So in the bottom of the pit I tossed in a layer of old hay, then I added 4-inches of manure, then a layer of hay and leaves, then another 4 inches of manure. Finally, using the good top soil I’d set aside when digging the pit, I filled up the pit.


Did it work? You bet! When the air outside is 40 degrees inside my “hot box” it is 55 degrees. At night my box keeps the air 10 to 15 degrees warmer than outside air.


Into this deluxe new domain for plants I planted 5 red cabbage starts, a dozen lettuce plants, 3 clumps of watercress, a few Swiss chard plants and 3 cilantro. All of those I’d started indoors a month earlier. I have room for some spinach that I will start by seed.


Bottom heat is good for quick germination and growth, so I imagine fresh salads tomorrow! Oh, okay, not that fast, but certainly much sooner than I would have them if I was depending on Mother Nature to warm the soil and air.


The only worry I have is that some morning I will leave the house for the day and forget to prop open the lids of the frame. If the sun comes out it could get lethally hot. But as a dedicated gardening guy, I guess I just need to put a reminder with my car keys! That should prevent any “heat emergencies”.


Deer Repellant

Deer Repellant

On another note, tulips are coming into blossom for me. I protect mine from the deer with a makeshift fence and some garlic spikes. The garlic spikes are small plastic cylinders with a clip to attach to a twig or fence and food-grade garlic oil inside. A barrier requires you to activate them by puncturing the seal with a little tool they provide. Once opened, they are stinky! Available at garden centers or on-line ( They claim to provide protection for 6 months or more, though a fence is your best protection if there are a lot of hungry deer around.


Read Henry’s twice-weekly blog posts at www.dailyUV/henryhomeyer. Read his article there about preventing Lyme disease (


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Shrubs with Fragrant Flowers

Posted on Wednesday, May 4, 2016 · Leave a Comment 

Some gardeners grow flowers for their beauty in the garden. Others for their magnificence in a vase. A few select species largely for their scent. My friend Nelia Sargent of Claremont is in this third category, largely because she is blind. I called her recently to see what flowering shrubs she likes best.


Nelia loves shrubs because they pack so many flowers in a small space. And, unlike most perennial flowers, they have their blossoms close to nose level. Who needs to bend over to sniff a peony if you have old fashioned shrub roses standing up 3 or 4 feet tall? Here are some of her favorites along with a few of mine –roughly in sequence of their blossoms.


Common witch hazel

Common witch hazel

First for her, in late March or early April, is a witchhazel hybrid (Hamamelis x intermedia) called ‘Arnold’s Promise’.  This flowers heavily with yellow strap-like petals an inch long originating at a reddish calyx cup. Although this bush can get large – up to 20 feet tall and wide, I have never seen one half that size, here in the North Country. I have our native witchhazel which blooms in late fall, but this hybrid is a great plant and one I should get. It’s very fragrant.


At the same time (or soon thereafter) is February Daphne, a tidy pink shrub that is very highly fragrant. I love this one so much I named my corgi after it. I’ve had mine for a dozen years and never had to prune it, which is a plus. I’ve seen it growing wild by the side of the road, which makes me wonder if it will be invasive sometime in the next 50 years. But since I’ve not gotten one seedling and it grows slowly, I’m not too worried.


Nelia Sargent then listed a number of viburnums that are fragrant and lovely. Three that she mentioned are Viburnum juddii, V. carlessii, and V. burkwoodii. Don’t be put off by the Latin names. Just pronounce the species names like juddii with an E-I sound at the end. All three species were named after horticulturists.


Buds of Viburnum Juddii

Buds of Viburnum Juddii

Viburnum juddii gets to be 6 to 8 feet tall tall, with blossoms about 3 inches across. V. carlessii, also called Koreanspice viburnum, gets to be 4 to 5 feet tall and wide, with 2 to 3 inch semi-snowball flowers. The Burkwood viburnum can get 8 to 10 feet tall with spread about 2/3’s its height; like the others, its flowers are pink in bud, opening to white and highly fragrant.


In recent years there has been an invasive beetle that has terrorized many viburnum owners. Cornell University has listed viburnums according to their susceptibility. Burkwood viburnum was listed as moderately susceptible to defoliation, but V. carlessiiand V. juddii were in the group least attractive to the beetle. You can see the entire list at I have had a Judd viburnum 3 years and never seen one of the dreaded beetles.


After the viburnums bloom, and overlapping with them, are the lilacs. Nelia Sargent noted that there are early, mid-season and late lilacs, so one can have fragrant lilacs for at least 5 weeks. First for her comes one called Sister Justina, a white one that stays tidy and does not send up root suckers. ‘Gertrude Lesley’, a double white is also early and nicely fragrant. The common lilac,Syringa vulgaris, has 800 or 900 named varieties. Most are mid-season and nicely fragrant. These spread by root, sending up suckers that will create a hedge if you are not attentive.




Fragrant late season lilacs include Miss Kim (a cultivar of Syringa patula), a slow-growing variety that is (mistakenly) sometimes called a miniature. Mine is now over 8 feet tall, definitely not a dwarf! Another late beauty is ‘Donald Wyman’ (Syringa x prestoniae ‘Donald Wyman’) which is hardy to Zone 2 (minus 50 Fahrenheit) and will thrive despite pollution and compaction in wet or dry soils! One tough plant.


The final shrub on Nelia’s list is mockorange (Philadelphus coronarius). Not related to oranges, this 10 to 12 foot shrub has white blossoms that are sweetly fragrant. That said, be advised that not all cultivars are fragrant, so buy one in bloom. It is an old fashioned flower and not particular to soil type.


Roses can be lovely and fragrant, but many of the modern hybrids have little or no scent. The Knockout roses are fabulous disease-resistant roses that bloom most of the summer, but I’ve only encountered one that was fragrant. On the other hand, rugosa roses are highly fragrant, as are many of the old fashioned roses. I recommend buying them when in bloom if fragrance is important.


I agree with Nelia Sargent: shrubs with fragrant blossoms are a good addition to the landscape. And they are often great for our native pollinators, too.


Read Henry’s garden blog at You can sign up for an email link to the blog every time Henry posts something.


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Tips on Growing Vegetables, A to Z

Posted on Wednesday, April 27, 2016 · Leave a Comment 

Romanesco zucchini

Romanesco zucchini

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.


Happy Rich

Happy Rich

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 ( 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 ( 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.


Brussels sprouts

Brussels sprouts

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 You can sign up for an email alert every time he posts a new entry.


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Gardening Gifts for Mother’s Day

Posted on Wednesday, April 20, 2016 · Leave a Comment 

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

Marsh marigold

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.


Darmera peltata

Darmera peltata

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 (, 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 (, 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 Sign up for an e-mail every time he posts. He is the author of 4 gardening books, and lives in Cornish Flat, NH.



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