Most mornings in winter I start my day with a bowl of oatmeal. That can get pretty dull, so I liven it up with a variety of fruits, most of which I grew myself and preserved either dried or frozen. Add some cinnamon or cardamom and a few nuts, and bland becomes bodacious. In my freezer I have blueberries, elderberries, blackberries, plums, apples, raspberries and a few peaches that I got by trading some apples with a friend. So if you’re bored with breakfast, do some studying now about the various fruits you might grow, and plant them this summer.
Much of what I know about gardening comes from practical experience: ask a good gardener, for example, what kind of peach tree she grows, plant one, and see how it does. Try again if the first one dies. But I also depend on reading good books on gardening, and now, while there is still snow on the ground, I spend considerable time reading.
I have two books on fruit growing that I like a lot. The first, written in 1992 by Lewis Hill of Greensboro, Vermont, is a classic: Fruits and Berries for the Home Garden. Lewis was a friend of mine (he passed away in 2008) and a Vermonter to the core: quick –witted, hardworking, and curious. He grew up on a dairy farm and only had a high school education, but with his wife Nancy, he wrote 16 excellent gardening books. His book on fruits and berries is full of good information but also entertaining. It has recently been updated, I just learned, by University of Vermont professor Len Perry as The Fruit Grower’s Bible.
The other fruit book I like is Lee Reich’s Grow Fruit Naturally: A Hands-On Guide to Luscious, Homegrown Fruit, which came out in 2012 and is full of color illustrations and good drawings. Like Hill, Lee Reich is opinionated, thorough, and has many years of experience. Lee has a PhD in horticulture and lives in upstate New York.
Reich’s book introduced me to two fruits hardy for Zone 5 (possibly even Zone 4) that I have never grown or tasted: the medlar and the shipova. The medlar is a small tree that is self-fruitful, meaning that one tree is all that is needed for pollination. According to Reich’s book, the medlar blossoms open late enough to almost never be bothered by spring frosts. The fruit keeps well and is very tasty. So why have I never heard of one? Reich writes, “The flesh, when ready for eating, is brown and mushy and lacking visual appeal.” It also needs “bletting” or ripening on a shelf in a cool room, the cooler the better.
The Shipova is actually a hybrid made from two different species, a type of mountain ash (Sorbus aria) and the European pear. Reich lists it as a Zone 4 plant, so it is hardier than the medlar and should survive my New Hampshire winters easily. It produces pear-like fruit on a tree that can grow to 20 feet, or if grafted on a suitable rootstock, only 8 feet tall. He says that are ready for harvest in mid-summer. Unlike the medlar, the fruit does not keep well – but it is attractive to the eye and tasty, too. I called Lee, and he said the fruit tastes similar to a pear.
Reich made it clear that fruits like the medlar and shipova are not often sold at our local nurseries, so I went on-line to see where they are available. Raintree Nursery in Morton, Washington (http://www.raintreenursery.com) had both for sale. In the back of Reich’s book there is a list of nurseries that sell fruit trees, including St Lawrence Nurseries in Potsdam, NY which has lots of cold hardy trees that can be ordered bare root until April 10.
Lee Reich’s book is just chockfull of tidbits that are useful. He explains, for example, labels on pesticides: ‘caution’ means the material is slightly toxic or relatively nontoxic. ‘Warning’ means moderate toxicity, and material marked ‘danger’ might kill you – even in small quantities. Lee is a proponent of organic techniques, but points out that even pesticides approved for organic growers can have severe side effects. He notes that nicotine sulfate is an extract of tobacco that is “organic” but has a danger label. It’s important to pay attention to warning labels whether you are using organic pesticides or not.
I also like the fact that Reich’s Grow Fruit Naturally has specific cultivars named for the fruits it describes, and offers useful tips such as whether a variety is self-fruitful or not. There is a nice section on pruning and another on proper planting techniques.
Call me a skeptic, but I like to buy trees from local nurseries as it means that the owners probably have grown what they are selling. Still … I love to experiment with new plants, and usually try something new every year. This just might be the year for a shipova or a medlar. I wonder how they are on breakfast cereal?
Henry Homeyer can be reached at email@example.com or by writing him at P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746.
I like winter. I like the special quality of winter light in the late afternoon, those purples and blues that were perfectly captured by artist Maxfield Parish. But most of all, I like passing through the woods on skis when the sun is bright. The snow sparkles the way diamonds might, if scattered on a Mediterranean beach.
I visit the woods in winter for the same reason that I go to museums: for the sheer beauty on display. There is something uplifting about great works of art – or great works of nature. I don’t need to go to the Grand Canyon to feel awe; I can enjoy the woods near home just as much. Part of the joy for me is going slowly enough to see what’s there, and taking time to appreciate the details.
As I approach my favorite woods, stolid maples wait patiently along the lane, old and venerable. They will share their sweet nectar in another month or two but for now they stand silently, motionless, waiting.
In the forest, young hemlocks bend under the weight of snow, their long arms reaching to the ground for stability, green fingers disappearing into the snow. Going through glades of mature hemlocks or pines, their branches reaching out high above me, is almost like visiting a great cathedral. I like the wisps of snow that blow off their branches – snow smoke I call it – even if some goes down my neck.
Teenage beeches are the glamour stars of the woods, their bark smooth, gray and unblemished. Young beeches often hold their dry brown leaves until May, and they rustle when I jostle them. But the old beeches seem somber, even sad, and somehow remind me of elephants. They are stolid, unmoving, their grey legs showing wrinkles and scars.
I don’t always have time or the energy to go for a long cross-country skiing adventure. Sometimes I just strap on my snowshoes and go to my garden to look at the silhouettes of trees and shrubs.
One of my favorites is my Merrill magnolia. I planted it some 15 or 20 years ago as a specimen tree in the middle of a mowed lawn. Now it is near maturity: 25 or 30 feet tall with a “wing span” of 20 feet. It has multiple stems, as many magnolia do, and smooth gray bark. The branches are loaded with large, fuzzy flower buds. These buds are bigger and better than pussy willow blossoms, and they bring joy not only for their looks now, but also for the image of what the blossoms will look like: 3-inch double white flowers that are lightly fragrant. The tree almost always blooms for me on April 23, my birthday.
I love the curlicue form of purple-leafed, twisted hazelnut (also called Harry Lauder’s walking stick). It is a very interesting silhouette against the snow, and come spring it will produce lovely, glossy purplish leaves. Later in the summer the leaves will lose some of their purple hue and appear more green.
My apple trees can be a joy to look at, too. Proper pruning of apple trees can turn them into works of art. The key is to get rid of the clutter that apple trees seem determined to grow. Annual pruning to get rid of those vertical twigs called “water sprouts” makes a big difference. I tell people that a bird should be able to fly through an apple tree and not get hurt. I once found the skeleton of a bird in an unpruned apple tree, but don’t know for sure how it met its demise. I’ll start pruning in March, once the snow has melted enough to move around the trees easily.
A native tree that has a great profile is the pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia). It grows branches well separated, so they remind me of person doing Tai chi, holding arms in frozen poses. I have one that grew out of the face of a retaining wall as a ‘volunteer’. Although I snipped it off when young, the roots sent a new shoot, and I let it grow. Now it is a favorite of mine in winter.
My arctic blue willow looks great now, too. It is a ‘nana’ or small variety, and has hundreds of thin twigs growing vertically and very close together. Earlier in the winter it was severely bent over by an ice storm, but I shook the branches free of ice and snow, and now it is back in fine form. The 16 inches of fine snow we got recently sifted through the branches this time, giving it a great silhouette.
So go outside and really look at the “bones” of your garden on a snowy day. And if you don’t find much to look at, make plans to buy and plant some nice trees and shrubs, come spring.
Correction: A kindly soils professor e-mailed me about a recent article in which I said wood ashes could be used to substitute for limestone. He noted that trees can pick up lead and cadmium, particularly near roads, so wood ashes are not good to use in the garden. He also said they act so quickly that your soil may become too alkaline and inhospitable to soil microorganisms.
Henry Homeyer teaches pruning and general gardening. His web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com. He is the author of 4 gardening books.
I’ve been accused of having a green thumb. I don’t. But I can understand why someone might think so. I have lots of successful flowers, shrubs, trees and vegetables growing on my property every year. But I’m willing to bet that I’ve killed more plants than that guy who claims to have a “brown thumb”. I take chances, buying and trying perennials that are outside their normal climatic zone. I try plants that are persnickety, and then try them again after I kill the first ones.
The late author and illustrator Tasha Tudor, a great gardener who lived in southern Vermont, told me once that she buys at least three pots of any new perennial, and then tries them out in different places on her property to see where they do the best. Often she would buy seven or more pots of the same plant. She tried them in places that had more sun, or less. More natural moisture or less. Like me, I bet she tried different amounts of soil additives for the same kind of plant – more compost, more peat moss or limestone, or more sand, for example.
So what makes a successful gardener? Getting the right soil for each plant. Soil is the key to gardening success. This is a good time, in mid-winter, to pause and learn about soils and to think what you might do, come spring.
There are three basic types of soil; sandy soil, loam and heavy clay soils. Most plants prefer, according to the gardening literature, “Moist, rich, well drained soil.” So how do you get that? It takes time and effort.
The soil most plants want has a mixture of particle sizes: small (clay), medium (loam) and large (sand). Very small particles pack together tightly and hold water with their electromagnetic charges. Clay soils do not drain well – they act like a bowl of baking flour. Sandy soils drain too well – like a wire basket full of golf balls. A good soil has some tiny particles, along with larger ones that provide good drainage.
If you have a clay soil, you cannot just add sand. Clay mixed with sand makes a soil that acts like like concrete. Similarly, if you have sandy soil that doesn’t easily hold water, you cannot just add lots of clay. The key ingredients for either soil are compost and other kinds of organic matter such as chopped leaves, peat moss or coir (coconut fiber). Adding compost is, in my opinion, always a good thing.
The great thing about compost is that it adds water-retention abilities (think of it as containing lots of little sponges) as well as living organisms that work well with your plants. But compost adds air spaces, too, so water can drain better in clay soils if you add lots of compost.
Plants thrive in soils that are biologically active: soils that are full of beneficial fungi, bacteria, protozoa. I read once that a teaspoon of healthy soil can contain 5 billion bacteria, 20 million filamentous fungi and a million protozoa. We tend to think of fungi and bacteria as bad: you may think of fungi as the mildews and molds on leaves. Our mothers told us often to wash our hands to keep bacteria out of our mouths. But in the soil there are many more good bacteria and fungi than bad ones.
Chemicals added to your lawn or garden may inhibit the growth and viability of those beneficial microorganisms. Most chemical fertilizers are composed of salts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Salts dry out living tissue and can easily kill microorganisms. Too much fertilizer can dry out and kill root hairs of your precious plants, too. Farmers talk of fertilizer “burning” the roots of young transplants. That means drying out the root hairs, killing them.
What else can you add to your soil to help it along? Here in the Northeast our rain is somewhat acidic, and that acid dissolves some minerals and washes them away. Plants need calcium and magnesium, both of which wash away in spring rains. You can buy a 50-pound bag of limestone and apply it in small quantities to your lawn and garden. If you get your soil tested, it should give a recommendation for how many pounds of limestone are needed for every hundred square feet of garden.
Please note: there are two kinds of limestone – dolmitic which contains magnesium, and calcitic, which does not. A soil test will tell you which kind to buy. Or, if you are on a budget and have a woodstove, you use wood ashes instead of limestone. Wood ashes are finer than limestone in a bag, so it is incorporated into the soil more quickly. Use wood ashes at the same rate as you would limestone that you purchased.
When the snow goes and the soil thaws, get a soil sample and send it off to your State Extension testing service. It can tell you what might be missing from your soil, the soil acidity, soil type and amount of organic matter. The more you know, the better your plants will grow!
Henry Homeyer is a gardening educator and lecturer with a specialty in organic gardening. His web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com.
I’m not a big fan of the movies, but I remember a film from the 1960’s that opened with people trudging across a snow-swept plain somewhere in Russia wearing large fur hats and cumbersome boots. Doctor Zhivago, perhaps? Sometimes it seems that we’re all in that movie. If you’re finding winter dreary, you need to go to one of the many Spring Flower Shows – or maybe all of them.
The first flower show each year is the New Hampshire Orchid Society, this year on February 14-16. It is just orchids. Orchids of all kinds, and paraphernalia for orchid growers. Adults are $10, seniors $6, kids under 12 are free. It’s at the Radisson Hotel in Nashua. For info: www.nhorchids.org.
The first big shows are the weekend of February 20-23 with shows in Providence, RI and Hartford, CT. They are both excellent, and worth a visit. They’ll have flowering trees and luscious flowers, a multitude of vendors selling everything from bulbs and cut flowers to books and vases, and of course, educational lectures. The Providence Show has always been one of my favorites. (Full disclosure: I am lecturing Friday and Saturday at the Show in Providence).
This year the Providence Show is including vintage cars in the garden displays. I phoned Chuck Carberry, one of the show’s organizers, who told me that each major exhibit will include an antique or vintage car – from a Model A Ford in a Great Gatsby-themed garden to a ‘70’s Ferrari in an Italian grotto garden. Not only that, the show will feature an old time drive-in theater!
Each year at Providence I love the sand sculpture – castles big enough for children or gnomes – and this year, given the car theme, they are going to have an old fashioned “woodie” made of sand. The sculptors work on their creations during much of the show, so you can see how they do what they do. The same is true of the designers of the various flower exhibits – they are there to answer questions, which is nice. For info go to: www.flowershow.com
The Hartford show is held at the Connecticut Convention Center, which is a great space for such a big show – handy to the interstate, plenty of parking. They pride themselves on their seminars – 12 per day, Friday to Sunday. The Federated Garden Clubs have a big space on the show floor, allowing individual exhibitors to show off their house plants, cactus and arrangements. Tickets are $16, and unlike most shows, they accept cash only! So fill your wallet before you go. Info: www.ctflowershow.com.
The Philadelphia Flower Show is March 1-9. It is the original flower show (having started in 1829) and certainly the biggest and most expensive. Daily tickets are $27 and they sell a VIP all access ticket for $125! But you have to attend at least once in your life. Go during the week when crowds are less, if you can. For info: http://theflowershow.com/ I love this show for its sheer size and diversity. And there are lots of exhibits by ordinary gardeners, which I like.
The Portland, Maine Flower Show is March 6-9 at the Portland Company Complex on Fore St, downtown. Tickets cost $13 in advance. Info: http://portlandcompany.com. This year’s theme is Storybook Gardens.
The Boston Flower Show is another extravaganza. This year, designers have been asked to. “create a small freestanding garden inspired by a scene of romance or seduction from a specific, named piece of literature, a movie or a popular song”. It’s being held March 12-16 at the Seaport World Trade Center. Tickets are $20 – and worth it! For info: www.bostonflowershow.com. Get there at opening time (10am during the week, 9am on the weekend) before the crowds get too big.
After Boston comes The Seacoast Home and Garden Show in Durham, NH on March 29-30. A nice small show with 220 vendors and a reasonable fee to get in – tickets are only $8. Info: www.NewEnglandExpos.com.
Going cross country skiing is generally my way of keeping cheery during long, cold winters. We started off the winter with plenty of snow, but lost most of it in January rains, and recently we’ve just had cold weather. It would be pretty easy for me to get the blues under these conditions, so I’ve been looking for ways to keep myself cheerful. One of the ways I do that is by learning about new plants, and dreaming of growing them once winter has ebbed.
Even though it came out in 2011, I only recently got my own copy of Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees & Shrubs. It’s 950 pages of information about 3700 species of woody plants – with more than 3500 good color photos. I have decided to read it cover to cover by April, though I am skimming the parts about plants for Zones 7 to 9. And since I own it, I am underlining and highlighting relevant info about plants that I want to try. I’d like to share a few of my ideas for purchases with you.
I’ve filled up most of my sunny places, so things that do well and bloom in shade are of interest to me. In the back of the book are lists of plants that do well in various conditions. It lists 225 plants that do well in shade (though some are outside our climatic zone).
First on my list of shade lovers to buy is bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora). Dirr calls it “truly one of the best native shrubs for late-spring and early summer”. It is hardy to Zone 4 and “flowers almost as prolifically in shade as in sun.” The blossoms are 8 to 12 inch long, bottlebrush-shaped white inflorescences similar to those on horse chestnut trees– they are ‘cousins’ in the same genus. But it is an understory plant, growing to be just 8 to 12 feet high and 8 to 15 feet wide. And although it likes moist, well-drained soils best, it will grow almost anywhere.
Next, for both the bark and the blooms, I want to buy a Japanese clethra (Clethra barbinervis). It is a Zone 5 plant (good to minus 20) that requires shade and moisture-retentive soil for success. I have plenty of moist, shady areas near my stream that would easily harbor a 10 to 20 foot-tall shrub or small tree. The small blossoms are displayed in hanging panicles in July and August – a time when few other shrubs are blooming. The bark is exfoliating (it peels, exposing different colors of bark), which means it will be interesting to look at in winter.
I’ve always Franklinia (Franklinia alatamaha) for its bark which has interesting vertical fissures and for its 3-inch fragrant white blossoms in July and August. It will grow in shade and likes moist, well-drained soils. But Dirr warns that poorly drained soils generally prove fatal. It is a shrub or small tree, 10 to 20 feet high and 6 to 15 feet wide.
Franklinia was originally found in 1770 in Georgia, named after Ben Franklin, and disappeared from the wild by 1790. It is, according to Dirr, “a somewhat persnickety landscape plant.” Does that deter me? Well it has so far, but now that USDA has reclassified my area as Zone 5, and Dirr says this is a Zone 5 plant, maybe I should try it. I have not seen it succeed in New Hampshire or Vermont, which should warn me not to spend too much on my experiment. If you have grown it, please let me know how it did, and where you grew it.
Another tree that interests me is paw-paw (Asimina triloba). This is a small understory tree that produces edible fruit with a somewhat tropical flavor – a bit like bananas. I have only seen – and tasted – it in the Athens, Ohio area but Dirr says it is hardy to Zone 5. It does well in moist, well-drained soils in shade to full sun. Dirr says it will sucker (send out roots from the mother plant) so that it creates colonies. I have never seen the flowers, but he describes them as “lurid purple flowers that creep out of hairy brown buds before the leaves come out in April or May”.
Why is it that we see so few of these more unusual shrubs and trees? It may be that nurseries are unwilling to try things that no one has ever heard of. Or it may be that some growers have tried them, and the plants did not do well. Soil type (sandy, loam or clay) and soil pH (level of acidity) are important, but so are microorganisms. It may be that the bacteria and fungi in the soil along a stream bank in Ohio are very different than along my own stream.
My grandfather, John Lenat (1885 to 1967), was not an educated man, but a wise one who was an organic gardener long before it was fashionable. He told my sister once, “When you transplant something, bring along enough soil so that it will remember where it came from.” What he was saying, I think, is that you should bring along enough soil to inoculate your soil with the microorganisms from the site where it thrived.
Professor Dirr’s book is fun reading, too. He is opinionated and comes out with occasional wild statements – “with the right amount of imagination they (the flowers of Colutea arborescens) conjure visions of Yosemite Sam”, for example. So get your library to order a copy – or order your own.
Henry’s website is www.Gardening-Guy.com. He is the author of 4 gardening books.
The seed catalogs have been arriving in my post office box for weeks now, and I‘ve been reading them and dreaming of fat, juicy tomatoes and sweet crunchy cucumbers. It’s too early to plant seeds indoors, but I’m getting ready now.
The first step in starting plants from seed is always to sort out what seeds I have, and to throw out the seeds that are past their “best used by” date. As a general rule I use three years as limit for keeping and using seeds. There are a few things that will last longer, and a few that are best bought each year. But 3 years is a good rule of thumb. You might want to test a few seeds you have left in the closet now to see if they will germinate.
Here is how to test for seed viability: count out 10 seeds and place them on a good tough paper towel, and label the towel with a waterproof marker or pencil. Dampen the towel, fold it over a few times and place it in a zipper bag. I left the bags open, thinking that a sealed bag might promote rotting of the seeds, but in one case, the paper towel dried out in places – which is sure death to seeds just starting. I checked the seeds after 1 week (nothing) and after 2 weeks. Some seeds may require even longer.
There are a few seeds that are worth buying every year as they do not germinate well, even on their second year. Among those are corn, onions, parsnips and parsley. And you can do a test germination if you wish for seeds that are 3 years old or more. This year I tried 2 kinds of onions (to test the 1-year rule), artichokes and celeriac (supposedly good for 5 years).
The onions germinated poorly, as forecast. 30% of one variety germinated, none of another. The artichokes germinated poorly, but the paper had gotten a bit dry. I only tried 5 seeds, and 2 of them germinated in the second week, sending out 3 inch roots and incipient leaves. I then planted those two seedlings in a large, deep pot – because I have a hard time killing plants. And artichokes take a long time to develop big plants, so I thought I’d let a few get an early start.
How you store your seeds makes a difference in viability, too. I store half-used seed packets in open zipper bags on a shelf in a closet. It gets neither excessively hot nor cold in the closet, and the humidity is neither high nor low, in general. Remember that seeds have living tissue inside, so overheating or drying out completely would be bad – though some seeds seem to have outer coverings as tough as any plastic. And freezing seeds does not seem to harm them, and that is the way most seed banks store their seeds.
Also at this time of year you can begin to assemble all the supplies and equipment needed for growing seedlings indoors. That means cleaning out all of lsat year’s pots and 6-packs for starting seedlings, and buying new ones as needed. As a general rule, the deeper the containers, the better. When buying 6-packs for your seeds, always get the biggest, deepest that you can. Instead of economizing and getting packs that are 72 to a tray, look for those that are just 36 to tray instead.
I also need to find (and clean up) any of the plastic domes I use to cover the trays of started seeds. These are reusable clear plastic covers that fit nicely over a tray and hold in moisture and heat. Seeds that dry out when just germinating do not survive, and these lids are great at containing moisture. I remove them once most seeds in a tray have started to grow.
Heat mats are also useful in starting seeds. I place seed trays on them to give a little bottom heat. Seeds germinate better and sooner with bottom heat, which makes sense. Seeds in the wild (without my help and supervision) shouldn’t germinate in winter – the seedlings would freeze. But warm soil tells the seeds that summer has arrived – hence the heat mats (to trick them). Available at garden centers.
Over the eons, plants have developed triggers for germination including temperature, presence of moisture, and, for some, sunshine. The photo-trigger means that seeds rototilled deeply won’t germinate – which is why I don’t rototill: weed seeds will germinate if brought to the surface.
Seedlings often do not do well if planted in garden soil indoors. There is no breeze and no direct sunshine in doors, so they may develop a fungal disease known as “damping off”. Outdoors it is not generally a problem. But it is best to buy “potting mix” or “seed starting mix”. This fluffy stuff is generally peat-based and sterile. I like to mix it 50-50 with compost, either my own or out of a bag. If you have it in your barn, be sure you thaw it out well in advance.
It’s still too early to plant most things. Onions and artichokes can be started in February, and sometimes I start hot peppers then. In general I like to start tomatoes and other annuals in early April so that they don’t get too big indoors. But it’s never too early to get organized and ready.
Henry Homeyer is a gardener, gardening teacher and consultant. His Web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com. he is the author of 4 gardening books and lives in Cornish Flat, NH
When pruning a Merrill magnolia last November, I brought home a few stems that had nice fat flower buds and put them in a vase of water. I put them in a south-facing window and pretty much forgot about them. From time to time I admired the smooth gray bark and handsome branching patterns. But then in the first week of January, those stems developed lovely green leaves! And the flower buds are swelling and look as if they might bloom, too – but even if they don’t, my spirits are lifted by seeing some green leaves.
Forcing blossoms of tree branches (making them bloom early indoors) is normally something I do in March, when I am pruning apple trees. I always bring in some branches and enjoy both the leaves and flowers of stems I have cut. At that time of year the trees are already “thinking” about opening up their buds, and it only takes a week or two for them to open up on a sunny windowsill.
But this year, I am going to cut apples, forsythia, lilacs and other spring-blooming trees and shrubs starting now. Each week I shall snip a few branches and experiment with forcing. I have never tried forcing lilacs, for example, and since they are mid-to late-spring bloomers, I would normally hold off until nearer the time that they normally break dormancy –perhaps in April. But why not try now? I have read that one can encourage branches to break dormancy by submerging them entirely in a bathtub of water and will give that a try.
When you select branches for forcing, be sure to pick some that have flower buds. Flower buds are generally fatter than leaf buds. On apple trees, flowers are generally found on fruit spurs. These are 2- or 3-inch long stems that end in fat buds. The buds contain both leaf and flower buds. For many varieties, fruit spurs must be more than a year old in order to produce flowers (and hence fruit). Last year’s water sprouts (vertical whips) on apples will produce leaves but not flowers.
Almost any tree can be forced, but many do not have flowers that are colorful, so we often ignore them. Do you know what a maple or poplar blossom looks like? Their small green flowers are not much appreciated – and I have never cut them to put in a vase. You certainly recognize pussy willows as signs of spring, but do you think of those furry fellows as flowers? They are flowers, and can give me as much pleasure in February as my roses will later on.
For best results, cut stems of trees according to their natural schedule. That means picking early bloomers now, and later bloomers in February and March. Here is a rough schedule: In January cut forsythia , willows and poplars. In early February cut red maples, alder, quince, birch and cherries. Later in February try rhododendrons, azaleas and pussy willows. Then in March try cutting branches of hawthorns, shrub honeysuckles, apples, crabapples, mockorange, lilacs, and spirea.
Elsewhere in the house I was recently surprised by a tomato plant that appeared in a pot where I have an avocado growing. The avocado was one that I dug out of the compost pile last fall – along with a tomato seed, apparently. Most grocery store avocados do not have viable seeds, as the seeds need to be fresh (picked within 3 weeks of planting) in order to grow.
I remember as a boy suspending an avocado seed in a glass of water by toothpicks. It sent roots down into the glass, and then sent up a stem. I planted the seedling in a pot, creating a nice houseplant with glossy green leaves. But since the avocado industry now stores and sells avocados all year, the seeds are usually too old to grow. But I guess last summer I threw a few fresh avocado seeds into the compost because three seeds grew!
But what about that orphan tomato growing with my avocado? I am going to give it every benefit. I have heard about people who have gotten tomatoes to bloom and produce fruit indoors in winter, though I have never done it. To help mine along I have hung a light over it in the window where it is growing. I am using an LED light that uses very little energy and produces a lot of light from its 45 little LED bulbs. It’s produced by Sunshine Systems (www.sunshine-systems.com) and uses just 28 watts of power while providing the light of a 250 watt hps lamp.
I realize that my tomato might not produce tasty fruit even if I get some. It all depends on the seed: it will be fine if it came from an heirloom tomato (which is mostly what I grow), but if it’s from a hybrid tomato plant, it might produce an undesirable fruit. Hybrids most often revert to the parent types, which may not be tasty. Still … it’s winter, and I’m game to try almost anything to feel like a gardener.
Henry Homeyer is the author of 4 gardening books and lectures on gardening throughout New England. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For most of us, gardening in January is limited. Water the houseplants. Read the seed catalogs. Dream of flowering shrubs to add to the perennial border - that sort of thing. But there are activities we can do now– and should.
In late December we had 4 inches of heavy wet snow, followed by cold weather. This resulted in heavy globs of snow and ice frozen to many of our decorative trees and shrubs, and considerable damage. In addition to broken limbs, many branches were bent to the ground – and might stay that way unless we do something.
I went around my garden to knock off snow, or to shake it loose from shrubs that were bent over or burdened by the snow. Some have responded nicely, popping back to their standard shapes, while others may not fully recover until spring.
Of those that bounced back, there is my arctic blue willow (Salix purpurea ‘Nana’). This shrub has varied in its form over the years: for several years it was a classic ‘Nana’ – which means that it was a slow-growing dwarf form. But since I started pruning it a few years ago (or perhaps it hit a teenage growth spurt) it has responded by putting out lots of new growth, sometimes growing as much as 3 feet in a season. I didn’t prune it last fall because the new growth was so distinctive: lots of fine vertical stems in close proximity to each other. It reminds me of a punk rockers hairdo – straight up.
That willow was bent over so that the tips of its branches (which were 6 feet tall or so) touched the ground. I went around gathering armfuls of branches and shaking them gently to shed the snow. The branches did not pop back up and I was worried that the shape of the shrub would be permanently changed. But a couple of days later it is back to its original shape.
I keep my Christmas tree up and in the house until it becomes almost dangerously dry, ready to explode at the first sign of a spark. I consider it a “winter tree” in the New Year and revel in its lights and all the memories the ornaments conjure up. (I have a felt and tinsel Santa from my Mom’s tree that probably came from Germany with her parents around 1900). But if you take down yours before the Ground Hog Day, you can use the branches in the garden.
Evergreen boughs are great to use to protect tender perennials and shrubs. Although we have had good snow cover so far this year, if we get a January thaw followed by very cold nights, frost and cold may penetrate the soil deeply and may kill the roots of tender plants. To prevent that, provide some insulation, particularly for new perennials and shrubs. Place branches over the plants, and then some mulch hay or straw over that. It’s like tucking in your baby at night.
A brief explanation is in order about why some tender shrubs and vines fail to bloom some years. Woody plants make their buds either the summer before and bloom early in the spring or summer on “old wood”. Or they make their buds in spring for summer or fall blooms on “new wood” that grows after winter is over. In the first category are forsythia, lilacs, blueberries and most wisteria. In the second are hydrangeas, summer clethra and Seven Sons Flower tree.
Shrubs that bloom on old wood can lose their blossoms when a cold, strong wind burns off the flower buds. The ‘Endless Summer’ blue hydrangea is sold as a plant that will bloom in June and repeat blooms all summer. But that only happens if the flower buds survive the winter, and often they do not – delaying bloom until late summer on new wood.
Another gardening activity I do when temperatures are below zero is to plant a few poppy seeds outdoors in the snow. I save the seed heads of annual poppies each year in a plastic bag. Then just when winter seems the most oppressive, I sprinkle seeds on the snow over a flower bed that has been cultivated and loose soil on its surface.
Even a cold winter sun will heat up a black poppy seed enough to allow it to melt its way through the snow. If I sprinkle a hundred seeds, at least a few will eventually lodge in suitable places and grow next summer. It’s no work, great fun, and it makes spring seem like a word that is within the realm of the possible -even if the thermometer is below zero.
Henry Homeyer is the author of 4 gardening books and a children’s novel, Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet. Reach him at email@example.com or PO Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746.
On a sunny winter day I walked around my property and made a list of projects I should do in 2014. I knew I’d find a few, but easily found a dozen. Maybe these will encourage you to make your own resolutions for the upcoming year – or volunteer to come help me with mine!
In general I am pretty satisfied with my gardens. Yes, they always have some weeds – both in the vegetable garden and in my flower beds. I resolve to weed more in 2014, and, more importantly, to take my own advice and weed for at least a few minutes every day. Even 5 or ten minutes each day makes a big difference, I know it.
And there are some ‘vigorous’ plants that have taken over sections of some beds and need to be cleaned out or gotten under control. I resolve to work harder at doing so. I have some goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria) that has taken over a few places, and I know now that it is impossible to totally rid my gardens of it. Even if I were willing to use powerful chemical herbicides, which I am not, I cannot get rid of it. I will, however, work harder at keeping it contained. I will try to contain it with landscape fabric covered with bark mulch.
I need to clear out young trees that are popping up around older trees. Trees drop seeds, and too many of those seeds germinate and start to grow – even if they are just a few inches from a mature tree. These babies crowd existing trees, and basically have no future. Instead of letting a young maple grow six inches from a mature pine tree, better to cut if off at the base. This is work that I can do now, before heavy snows fall. I can cut these fledglings off right at ground level.
It is time to add some limestone or wood ashes to my lawn around my maples. This is something I can do now. Maples suffer from the effects of acid rain: the much needed calcium in the soil gets dissolved and washes away. I have a few old sugar maples that are in poor health so I will give them a nice shot of calcium (in the form of wood ash) that I will spread around the trees. How much? I suppose I should get a soil test done and weigh out the quantity of ash according to a formula. But so long as I don’t add an excessive quantity, I feel a “good sprinkling” is fine.
I have two cedar structures that I built for supporting vines and both need some attention, which I resolve to give them in 2014. One is a simple entry way with a sloped “roof” that leads into my vegetable garden; it supports a clematis and a wisteria ‘Amethyst Blue’. The other is a hexagon with a tall teepee-like roof that supports a ‘Blue Moon’ wisteria and some grapes. The supporting structures are made from cedar fence posts (which last almost forever), but the thin branches of cedar I used for the roofs have started to rot and fall apart after 15 years or so. I was determined to make the repairs in 2013, but failed to do so.
I have some wetlands behind my stream that I have never utilized fully. The area is mostly grown up in willows and alders. This year I’d like to get rid of some of those, and plant more colorful shrubs: winterberry (Ilex verticillata), red- and yellow twigged dogwood (Cornus sericea) . I have planted some marsh marigolds in that area, but they are largely obscured. It’s time to clean out some of the volunteer growth. I want to keep it wild looking, not manicured, but I do love color in wintertime.
And speaking of willows, I have a willow that I planned to keep about 10 feet tall or so, but it has gotten to be more than twice that. I will do some radical pruning this year and next. One should never hack a tree back (I mean prune) more than 30% in a year, so I can’t do it all at once.
I have a Darwinian flower bed, one that I NEVER weed, one where only the fittest survive, but this coming year I resolve to do a little work there. The tall goldenrods, as much as I love them, have become too dominant. They are elbowing out the fall asters and a few other things. So I mowed the bed last fall, and will try to identify and dig up some of the goldenrods (Solidago spp.) in June. Maybe that will mean finding a young helper – or an intern – with a strong back to work with me.
I planted a spirea ‘Mellow Yellow’ in a dry shady place a few years ago after seeing one growing in a woodland garden in Lyme, NH. But mine has not developed the good color I saw there, so in 2014 I shall move it to a sunnier location. Shade comes in many varieties, and I think more sun will help this plant.
So that’s a good start with the garden resolutions. Send me yours, and if I get enough good suggestions, maybe I can do a column of reader resolutions. I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746. I will only use first names, so don’t be bashful! Include the town where you live, please. And all my best to you for the New Year!
Henry Homeyer is the author of 4 gardening books. His web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com.
Even Ebenezer Scrooge, (at least in his post-enlightenment days) probably had a bird feeder. Virtually everyone I know does, at any rate. Why? Because live birds are fun to watch, colorful, and because we pity them on cold mornings. Ten below zero? Those little chickadees are puffed up and fat-looking, increasing their tolerance to the cold by fluffing up their feathers. They seem to rely on us for food, but in fact, what we provide is more like dessert.
According to some studies, in winter birds only get about 25% of their calories from seed we buy. Maybe less. All year long they eat seeds, bugs, berries, nuts and all sorts of scavenged food. But we can help them by planting shrubs and trees that provide high calorie, nutritious food. Which is to say we shouldn’t be planting Fruit Loops – or the equivalent – we should be planting native species that are the equivalent of oatmeal or other healthy foods.
If you wish to plan on planting some bird-friendly plants, there is a wonderful book to help you: Richard DeGraaf’s Trees, Shrubs and Vines for Attracting Birds (University Press of New England, 2nd edition 2002, paper). It lists more than 160 woody plants used by birds and lists the birds that use each for food, cover or nesting.
A friend of mine has a barberry hedge and since barberries are on the invasive species list, I’d love to see the backhoe come next spring to pull those prickly shrubs out by their roots. I see barberries throughout the woods and at the edges of the fields – planted by the birds, and taking over the understory.
So what would I substitute as a hedge? Looking though DeGraaf’s book, I see plenty of shrubs that would serve the birds better. Common barberry (Berberis vulgaris) is eaten by just 7 species of birds. Highbush blueberry, on the other hand, is eaten by 52 species of birds, according to his book. But some might note that barberries persist during the winter (they are not very palatable to most birds), so they can serve as emergency rations.
But there are native species that also have berries that persist for most of the winter, but will not take over the undergrowth and squeeze out other species. There are plenty of viburnums that have good berries, some of which persist into winter. Viburnums, in general, are fast growing shrubs with nice flowers and berries. I particularly like one called Viburnum sargentii ‘Onodaga’ that has spectacular clusters of white blossoms in early summer. On the downside, however, there is an insect pest a beetle – that is killing or damaging some viburnums, so check at your family-owned, local nursery to find which species are susceptible to the beetle before buying.
And there is of course, the common cranberrybush viburnum (V. opulus) which produce masses or red berries that persist into winter. DeGraaf’s book lists 31 birds that eat the berries, including several thrushes, bluebirds, catbirds, bluejays, flickers and flycatchers. Definitely a better hedge than barberry.
Our native dogwoods of various sorts are attractive to birds, and some are fast-growing and suitable to use as hedges. Redosier dogwood (Cornus sericea) does best in wet spots, but will grow in ordinary garden soil, too. It spreads by root, so it will fill in to form a hedge in no time. The bright red (or yellow) stems of new growth can be spectacular for winter viewing. Some 20 species of birds eat the fruit.
Full sized trees are important to birds, too. They can provide shelter, nesting sites and food. Two common evergreens are among the best: white pine and Canadian hemlock. White pines provide food for 46 species of birds, and almost as many use them for nesting and cover. They are easy to grow and tough – just keep them well away from salted roads, as salt can kill them.
Canadian hemlock is the preferred nesting site for robins, blue jays and wood thrushes, among others. The seeds are good winter food for juncos, chickadees, goldfinches, blue jays and others. And unlike pines, one can use them to create hedges. That said, many people start out using hemlocks for hedges, only to get lazy for a few years – and discover that their hedge is 12 feet tall! That’s delightful to the birds, but may not give you the size hedge you wanted.
Apples, crabapples and nut trees are good for birds, too. Not all crabapples appeal to birds, but some favorites include Snowdrift, Sugar Time, Indian Magic, Sargent, Red Jewel, Prairie Fire and Golden Rainbow. Even hard nuts are helpful – often after squirrels finish with them there are tasty tidbits left in the shells for birds.
Almost anything you plant will provide something for the birds, but do your homework this winter to see what would please both you and the birds.
Henry Homeyer can be reached at email@example.com. His web site is www.Gardening-guy.com. He is the author of 4 gardening books.