It’s that time of year again. Time to think about buying gifts for our loved ones. For gardeners there are so many things, selecting something is easy – from under $10 to over $500. Let me play Santa, offering you ideas to choose from – or things to avoid.
Let’s start with the no-no’s: Unless your sweetie has asked for more houseplants, don’t buy houseplants. The only exception to that might be an orchid in bloom – if she can consider it like cut flowers and jettison it after it finishes blooming. But in general, houseplants are work, and require space on a windowsill. Likewise avoid buying a do-it-yourself beehive kit or an earthworm farm for digesting the leftover lettuce that would otherwise go in the compost.
On the other hand, a truckload of good compost would be welcomed by almost any gardener. Just don’t have Santa deliver it on the driveway. Santa has to deliver to the garden, or near the garden. Composted barn scrapings are sold by most dairy farmers and garden centers, and by some lawn maintenance companies. Ask for “hot composted manure” or aged barn scrapings. The hot composted stuff should not have any viable weed seeds.
Garden gloves are good gifts. These range in price from $6.95 to $24.95. Now days you can even get them in pink. Me? I like the stretchy gloves impregnated with latex on the palms, but not on the backs, so hands can breathe.
Last summer I got a set of deer-repelling blinking lights. Quite innovative. They are solar powered, and emit a red LED light all night that scares deer or other pests. It is called Nite-Guard Solar (www.niteguard.com). You need at least 4 of these devices, so that one is facing each direction around the garden at eye-height of the deer or raccoon. In my limited use, they seem to be a big help. Of course, with heavy deer pressure, only an 8-foot fence is 100% effective.
Speaking of deer, another problem they present is Lyme disease, carried by ticks that deer and mice carry. There is a gaiter available that is impregnated with permethrin. These gaiters wrap around your pants to prevent ticks from getting to you – and to kill them if they try to attach to your pant legs. If you have a lots of ticks, these may be a great help. Available on line at www.Lymeez.com. This is a new version of one that I tried earlier, and the manufacturer assures me it will be ready for shipment by December 19.
I’m not, in general, a big fan of rototillers, but was given a little one to try out last spring. It’s called the Mantis tiller (www.mantis.com). It only weighs 24 pounds and digs down to a maximum of 10 inches. I used it for working compost into the top 6 inches of my vegetable garden and found that it did a good job. It starts easily and runs well.
My basic complaint with large tillers is that they can go down 18 inches or so, moving microorganisms from one soil depth to another. This little guy is less likely to do that. Big ones can also damage soil structure, particularly if wet.
This summer I got a sauerkraut crock from Gardeners Supply (www.gardeners.com) and like it a lot. Mine has a 1.3 gallon capacity, and comes with a kit that includes weights to keep the kraut submerged. It has a water-sealed air lock for the cover which allows the gases to be vented, but no extraneous air-borne yeasts or bacteria to enter it.
Every year I mention my favorite weeding tool, the Cobrahead Weeder (www.cobrahead.com). It is available everywhere now because it really works: like a single steel finger it can tease out long grass roots, prepare a place for a tomato seedling, or get under a big weed, allowing you to pull from above and below. If your Sweetie doesn’t have one, get one, and she’ll love you even more!
Books are always good gifts. I recently got a copy of a nice book by Vermont garden designer and author Gordon Hayward and his wife Mary called Tending Your Garden: A Year-Round Guide to Garden Maintenance. Hayward is a hands-on guy who knows a lot, and the book if full of lovely photos and sensible ideas. I also love his book, Stone in the Garden. In fact, I like all his books!
Forest Trees of Vermont by Trevor Evans is one of the nicest guides to trees I have seen. Great photos, easy-to use, it even comes with a little ruler for measuring leaves! Applicable anywhere in the Northeast. Available from Forestry Press, www.ForestryPress.com.
In general, if you like an author, any book by the same author will be good. Thus you could look for books by Michael Dirr (trees, shrubs), Barbara Damroch (general gardening), Ed Smith (vegetables) or Sydney Eddison (flowers and design). And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my own books – they cover just about everything, but with an organic bias. My New Hampshire Gardener’s Companion is just out in an updated second edition and is relevant anywhere in New England.
Lastly, if you really don’t know what to get or are too busy to find something good, get a gift certificate to a local, family-owned garden center and let your loved pick a gift. Every serious gardener lusts after new perennials and shrubs, so why not facilitate the process with a gift certificate? And the garden centers would be happy for your business at this, a slow time of year.
Even if you raked your leaves in October, you probably have some more to clean up now. I do. Of course I was off gallivanting for much of October and hadn’t done any raking until recently. Still, trees like oaks and apples are still dropping leaves.
When I was a boy in Connecticut, my gardening Grampy would take the train or a bus from Spencer, Massachusetts each fall to visit us. In addition to getting some homemade apple pie and seeing his grandchildren, he came to help us rake the leaves. We lived in the country with close to an acre of lawn, I’d estimate, surrounded by a mixed hardwood forest. A lot of leaves fell –or blew- onto that lawn.
If you are of a certain age, you remember that back in the 1950’s there were no blue plastic tarps. We only had a wheelbarrow – one we called “the leaf cart” – to carry off many bushels of leaves. But Grampy was a tailor by trade, and made something to spread out on the lawn. He sewed together old sheets or bedspreads to make a large square of cloth, and brought it with him when he came each year. We raked the leaves onto that and when it was full, he drew the 4 corners together. Then, like Santa about to go down a chimney, he loaded it onto his back and carried it away.
Those leaves slowly broke down and made some of the most delicious compost you could ever imagine. Dark in color, it was loved by earthworms and was a great addition to our vegetable garden, flower pots and flower beds a few years after the leaves were collected.
It makes sense that leaves would make great compost. Trees mine the soil, bringing up minerals that end up in leaves. And, by the miracle of photosynthesis, trees make sugars and carbohydrates that build plant bodies. Re-using these elements is the original recycling. Trees have been dropping leaves and letting the bacteria, fungi and fauna of the forest break them down and re-use the elements for ages. Collecting them for use in our gardens is our way of capitalizing on a natural process.
Long ago I visited garden writer Sydney Eddison in her Connecticut garden. It was towards the end of a prolonged summer drought, one so bad that mature oaks were dying. There was a watering ban, but her flower gardens were thriving and, when I felt the soil, it was lightly damp. I asked her how she did it.
It was simple, she said. For 30 years her husband, Martin, had collected leaves each fall, running them over with a lawnmower and bagging them. He saved them in the barn, and in the spring Sydney spread out the chopped leaves and lawn grass around her perennials after they appeared. This mulch kept down weeds, attracted earthworms and enriched the soil. And it held moisture.
I use my leaves in the garden, too, though I do not bother bagging them. Most I spread over my mounded, raised vegetable beds after they have been weeded and re-shaped in the fall. They keep weeds from getting an early start, and keep out weed seeds that are blowing in the wind. Because they have been chopped, they don’t blow around much, and certainly not after a rain.
My neighbors, Susan and Joel Kinne, collect their leaves and put them in a bin they made with steel fence posts and wire mesh. It is about 4 feet on a side, and 4 feet high. I’ve seen the compost they have harvested from their bin, and it is gorgeous. Any self-respecting plant would love some in its soil. According to Joel, it takes between 2 and 3 years to go from leaf to compost, and they never bother turning the pile or doing anything else for the leaves.
I take my food scraps and the leaves and stems of kale, carrots and other veggies and toss it in a bin I made from old wood pallets. I have to admit I rarely bother to collect the compost – it is more a way of keeping vegetable matter out of the waste stream than making compost. But recently I took off one side of the bin and dug out some of the material from deep under this years’ additions.
I was amazed at the number of earthworms in the top layers – this year’s waste. There hundreds, perhaps thousands. Wriggling and squirming, small ones, medium sized ones. That’s good. They eat the food and their waste, called castings, is high in nitrogen and other minerals necessary for plant growth. More importantly, they are good sources of materials that create good tilth and texture in soil.
Deep down I harvested a bucket of black compost. It was fluffy, despite being pressed down by many pounds of matter above it. I could see bits of eggshell, but everything had been processed. I’ll mix it 50-50 with potting soil and use it to replant houseplants, giving them a fresh infusion of nutrients.
When I was a kid we jumped in the piles of leaves Grampy collected, but I think now, as a (considerably) heavier person, doing so might lead to broken bones. Still, I treasure those memories … and my leaf compost.
Henry is a UNH Lifetime Master Gardener the author of 4 gardening books. His website is www.Gardening-guy.com.
Going for a walk the other day along a public trail I was struck by the number of invasive shrubs I saw. Most trees and shrubs have shed their leaves, but burning bush (Euonymus alatus), Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) and honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.) still have leaves on their branches. Holding leaves and producing food by photosynthesis gives them extra energy to take over the world (or their world, anyway). This is a good time to pull a few of these out because many are very visible right now.
Why bother, you might ask? Because these invasive plants which come from the China or Japan have no natural enemies here. Left alone, they can take over the landscape, outcompeting our native wildflowers and understory shrubs, although that may take decades. In some places they have created monocultures by elbowing out other plants. Most birds, mammals and insects have evolved while depending on native species for their food and shelter. Do these shrubs provide food? Yes, but it is often not of the same quality as that of our native species.
Cutting down invasive shrubs will not necessarily kill them. Some invasive trees and shrubs react by sending up multiple new shoots from their roots. Instead of one buckthorn, for example, you suddenly have several in a circle around the tree you cut down. That increases the problem instead of solving it.
I have found that buckthorns can be killed without producing the root suckers if I double girdle the tree. By this I mean I cut a ring around the tree with a pruning saw, and then cut another ring a foot higher or lower than the first cut. I cut through the bark and the green cambium layer, but do not cut into the heartwood. If I do this now, the tree will leaf out next spring and the following spring, but slowly die by the third year. Patience is the key. The technique allows you to slowly starve the roots – they can’t get any nutrition from the leaves. Many buckthorns have multiple stems, and you must girdle every one to kill the roots.
For small to medium sized invasive trees and shrubs, pulling them up is another option. I recently met with Gerry Hawkes, an inventor and forester in Woodstock, Vermont to try out a tool he developed to pull invasives (and do other tasks such as hauling firewood and moving large stones). It is a sturdy, 2-wheeled device that uses leverage to pull up a tree, roots and all. We pulled an inch-and-a-half buckthorn tree and a full size multi-stemmed honeysuckle with a trunk that was over three inches in diameter at the base.
The tool we used is called a Wheeled Post and Shrub Puller (http://
We looped a light chain around the base of the tree and then attached it to one of four notches on the puller to allow us to begin with the best mechanical advantage, which is 12:1. I pulled down on the handle using my weight and it lifted the buckthorn partially out of the ground. Then, to get an even higher lift, we reset the chain to a different notch on the front of the tool and I got the root system right out of the ground! Since this tool is on 16 inch wheels, I was able to roll the tree away with little effort.
I have also used a hand tool called a Weed Wrench that pulls small trees and shrubs. Unfortunately, the company that makes these tools has gone out of business. It was made in four sizes with a gripping mouth-part that clamps down on a trunk, and a handle that uses leverage to pry out shrubs. Two other companies are now marketing similar tools, The Uprooter (www.theuprooter.com) and the Pullerbear (www.pullerbear.com). From what I have read, neither would compete with the tool I tried last week for pulling larger shrubs and small trees.
I think that using mechanical advantage to pull invasives makes much more sense than using chemical herbicides. But I don’t have personal experience following up over several years with invasives pulled: will the scraps of roots left in the ground survive and re-sprout? It’s possible that they will. Still, I think that Conservation Commissions and Garden Clubs would be well served by investing in pulling devices to share with interested townspeople and using along public pathways.
There are no plant police. No one can tell you that your invasive shrubs must be pulled up. Nurseries may not sell them, propagate them or transport them. But I am working hard at removing mine. And even if you live in a city, it makes sense to remove invasive plants on your property. Their seeds may wash down storm drains, and end up in a wetland or river – and spread their genetic material.
Getting rid of invasive plants takes time. I recently chatted with a woman who removed all the burning bush on her property 12 years ago. She is still pulling seedlings that germinate from seeds deposited over a decade ago. But, on the positive side, pulling “thugs” gives you more room to plant other nice landscape plants. So go look for invasive plants now, and try to get rid of a few.
Henry Homeyer is a gardening consultant and coach. He speaks to garden clubs and civic organizations about many aspects of gardening. Contact him at email@example.com or visit his website, www.Gardening-Guy.com.
This is a hard time for those of us who love to go to the garden to pick flowers to grace the table. We’ve had a few weeks of cold weather, and even the hardiest of flowers seem to have faded away. So what can a gardener do?
Think outside the box. We can pick stems of shrubs with colorful or interesting bark. We can snip off branches of evergreen trees. And there are decorative grasses and even some dry weeds that have interesting form.
Actually, I do have one thing still blooming: my witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana) shrubs are in their glory now that their leaves have dropped. They are remarkable yellow blossoms that consist of curly yellow straps. Their fall foliage is yellow and the blossoms appear while the leaves are still on the branches – and are easily missed. Now the leaves are gone and the blossoms are prominent.
Witchhazel comes in several species. There is a spring blooming variety, H. vernalis, that blooms as early as March. Some varieties of this species also have spectacular fall leaf color. The variety ‘Autumn Embers’, a spring bloomer, has great fall color. I have yet to try this species, but it’s on my wish list.
Most grasses and branches lend themselves to making big arrangements. I decided to try working with some to make something shorter as tall arrangements on the dining room table block my vision of a diner across from me. I cut stems of fountain grass (Miscanthus sinensis) which is well over 6 feet tall in my garden, but I just used the top 18 to 24 inches of each stem. They are in blossom right now, meaning that they display fluffy plumes above the foliage.
I also cut the bare red stems of red-twigged dogwood, which is also known as red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea). This is a plant that I cut to the ground each spring. New growth has bright red bark that seems to get brighter in the winter. In the wild it lives in wet places, and I grow it in moist soils, but it will grow in ordinary garden soil. I cut it back to keep the size in check, but mostly to get bright red color. Other varieties of the species produce yellow stems.
So I had bright red in the vase, and tawny beige grasses. I needed some greenery. I have lots of Canadian hemlock, but have found that the needles do not hold on well. White pine would work, but I wanted a different look. I cut a few stems of a hellebore, a perennial flower with evergreen leaves. The stems rise up a foot or so, then send out horizontal clusters of shiny green leaves, which seemed perfect. The leaves did well for a couple of days, then got droopy.
Other plants that often have good looking leaves at this time of year include European wild ginger (Asarum europaeum), dead nettle (Lamium spp.), myrtle or periwinkle (Vinca minor) and pachysandra (Pachysandra spp.). And although a vase full of just leaves may not be interesting in summer, a little greenery in a low bowl with a few stones is not bad now.
Of the leaves mentioned above, pachysandra is the best: it will last all winter in a vase, rooting and looking perky. Pick some now for use all winter.
In my vegetable garden I still have a number of plants that might also look good in a vase. Kale comes in a variety of colors and leaf types. All do well in a vase, and purple kale can be very striking. Mint also holds up for several days in a vase – and you can nibble on the leaves.
If you grew last winter’s amaryllis outdoors in a pot all summer, (hoping it might re-bloom for you this year), now is the time to give some tough love. You need to stop watering it, and let the leaves yellow and die. Cut off the leaves and keep it in a cool dark place for six weeks. It needs that dormant time if it is to re-bloom.
I usually take my amaryllis out of its pot, shake off any soil, and put it in a brown paper bag. Then I store it in my basement, which is between 45 and 55 degrees at this time of year, which is perfect. After 6 weeks I re-pot it and bring it up into the warmth of the house, but keep it out of direct sunshine for a while. Date the bag so you will know when to bring it into the light.
If you want to be sure of having a blooming amaryllis for the holiday season, go buy one now. They generally come with all you need: pot, potting soil, instructions. Don’t overwater it as the bulbs can rot. And this advice: bigger, more expensive bulbs are worth the money. The cheap ones you can get in a Big Box store will bloom, but you will probably just get one bloom stem, not two, and the blossoms will generally not be nearly as dramatic, nor be as numerous. I’ve learned the hard way.
Winter is breathing down our necks. I’m using the woodstove almost every day. And although I get a few things from my garden to put in a vase, I like to visit my local florist and buy some real flowers, too. If you’re on a limited budget, ask your florist for flowers that will last well in a vase. We gardeners all need flowers- even winter!
Henry is a garden consultant, coach, and a UNH Master Gardener. His web site is www.Gardening-guy.com.
As I calculate it, I’ve been gardening for 66 years – or at least hanging out in gardens. I have memories of being in the garden with my grandfather, John Lenat, when I was three. Technically I was “helping” Grampy, though my role was probably limited to things like tossing weeds into his wheelbarrow if the weeds missed the wheelbarrow when he threw them. Still, I’ve spent a lot of time in the garden since then. And each year I still learn plenty in the garden. Let’s look at what I learned this year.
I haven’t grown sweet corn often, but these last two years I’ve had the use of a farmer’s field to grow corn, potatoes, watermelons, pumpkins and more. It’s been great fun to have pretty much unlimited space for growing anything I want – and enough space to grow food to give away. So I grew sweet corn.
Farmers say corn is a “heavy feeder” and they give it plenty of nitrogen, one of the three nutrients found in chemical fertilizers. Nitrogen drives green growth and makes plants get big, fast. Inadvertently I did an experiment with my corn: half got supplemental nitrogen, half did not. It wasn’t a planned experiment: I had some bagged organic fertilizer, one called Pro-Gro, and gave it half my corn. Then I ran out of fertilizer and said to myself, “This is good rich soil, I’m not going to go back home (6 miles from the field) to get more fertilizer. It’ll be fine.”
The difference was dramatic: the corn that got fertilizer was big and produced nice corn. The other? Scrawny with small ears barely worth picking. Even those dang raccoons ignored it, mostly.
I had not grown watermelon in 30 years, as I had decided that I live too north to make it worthwhile. But our local farmstand grows nice small watermelons, and since I had the space, I decided to give some a try. I bought a 4-pack of plants in May, planted them in early June, and got a couple of watermelons from each plant.
Here’s what I learned: watermelons don’t take up so much space, or at least not the mini-melons. My melon sent out two vines each, and I directed them in opposite directions, running down the row. They grew up to 20 feet, but the leaves were relatively small, and they just went by other plants in the row without troubling them. That meant that I found melons in with the summer squash, but I didn’t mind.
Deciding when to pick the watermelons was, at first, challenging. The variety I grew (probably one called ‘Sugar Baby’) produced nice 6- to and 8-inch watermelons. I was told by a local farmer that ripe watermelons should sound hollow when tapped. The first one I picked was pink inside, not red, and clearly needed more time on the vine. We ate it anyway. But I learned to be patient. Watermelons don’t go mushy if you don’t pick them, or get tough and bitter. They just get sweeter, and wait patiently for you. The rest were all wonderful, and I shall grow them again.
A friend visited Monticello last year, and bought me some seeds, including sesame seeds. I planted some indoors last spring, and planted them in the ground in early June. I remember from my Peace Corps days in West Africa that sesame was a big plant, so I left plenty of space for these. I didn’t need to. Mine got no taller than 2 feet tall, and each plant produced perhaps 50 small seed pods. If you want a supply of sesame seeds, you need lots of plants. I won’t bother to do it again.
This past winter I read that tomatoes produce better if you grow them without added fertilizer. In the past I’ve always added both compost and bagged organic fertilizer in each planting hole. This year I did not add fertilizer and, as predicted, did not get those 6-foot tall plants I am used to. I got smaller plants, but they produced smaller loads of tomatoes, too. Next year I will use fertilizer again – but maybe less than the handful I usually toss in the planting hole.
I don’t normally grow celery. It tends to be tough, stringy, and attract slugs. Instead I grow celery root which is also called celeriac. Celeriac is a related plant that produces a big bulb-like root that tastes like celery when grated into soups and stews. I start it by seed in March, and grow it in full sun in soil that does not dry out.
This year I forgot to plant any seeds, so bought two 6-packs of started plants. But one of the 6-packs was celery, not celeriac. I didn’t notice the difference until mid-summer, as the leaves are similar. The celery was better than I had remembered: not the big stalks one finds at the grocery store, but reasonably sized and not too stringy. And the slugs? They ate some, but were not awful. What did I learn from this? Always start your own seeds if you want to be sure to get what you want.
Every year is different, and every year I learn from my mistakes and experiments. Maybe if I reach 100 years old I’ll know it all. I hope not!
Henry is a UNH Master Gardener living in Cornish Flat, NH. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.Gardening-Guy.com.
Being a gardener enhances my enjoyment of almost anything I do – including traveling. I recently went to France to hike a section of the Chemin de Saint Jacques de Compostelle. This is an ancient pilgrim’s trail through France and Spain (where it is called the Camino); it’s a thousand miles long and people have been walking it for over a thousand years.
Part of my joy in this trip was seeing what was growing as we walked along, particularly plants we grow as perennials here in New England but grow there as weeds or wildflowers. I also enjoyed seeing species of plants that are in the same genus (a scientific grouping of closely related plants) that are different species, but similar to ours. And seeing how things grow there informs me about what specific plants need.
Everywhere we walked we saw the light purple or heather-blue flowers of pincushion flower (Scabiosa spp.). It grew in fields, competing with grasses, and along roadsides. The soil in the part of France where we hiked was full of limestone rock, so it must be somewhat alkaline. I’ve grown this perennial, but it has never thrived for me, dying out after a year or two. I think if I plant it again, I will add some limestone to the soil. A cup of limestone worked into the soil around a trio of plants should help.
Jewelweed or touch-me-not (Impatiens capensis) is a tall weed that thrives in shade and produces seed pods that, when ripe, can propel seeds several feet when touched. Along my hike I saw a relative, probably Impatiens glandulifera, that not only appeared along the trail but also in gardens. This one is shorter than ours, two feet tall or less, and has nice pinkish flowers. Weed or garden plant? I saw it in planters, so I guess it is considered a garden plant there.
Speaking of weeds, I saw a little purple loosestrife in France, but never in the huge swaths have I seen it wetlands here. I saw a few plants alongside a disturbed area by a man-made lake. Everything I have read about this invasive here has told me that in Europe, where purple loosestrife came from, there are many natural insect predators to keep it under control; here are there are no natural predators. The plants I did see were much smaller than what I have seen here.
I saw large swaths of a bright yellow crocus, a large one that seemed to naturalize and spread nicely. I asked a local about it, he could only tell me that it was a type of crocus, but no species or cultivar name. I’ve grown fall crocus here, a beautiful purple-blue one that is the species that produces saffron (Crocus sativus). Unfortunately, it takes 7,000 blossoms to produce 3 ounces of saffron and mine, instead of naturalizing, have tended to disappear. Not sure if the squirrels are into saffron, or if the conditions where I planted them are not quite right.
Cyclamen is often sold as a very satisfactory houseplant here, but can also be grown as a fall-blooming outdoor plant. In France I saw huge patches of it blooming, mainly in shady places near homes, which made me think it was planted but I did see some growing in the wild, too. The variety I have grown is a species called Cyclamen neapolitanum. It has survived over the years, but rarely blooms for me, or if it does, it may escape my notice – it blooms just when my maples drop their leaves.
A plant that delighted and surprised me along the trail was stinking hellebore” (Helleborus foetidus). Hellebores are among my favorite flowers in early spring, though of a different species than the French one I saw – I grow lots of the kind called Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis). The Lenten rose is hardy to zone 4 and has been hybridized in recent years to produce blossoms ranging from deep purple to peach and pink. It grows in shade or partial shade and has glossy evergreen leaves. The stinking hellebore has greenish flowers that are malodorous, hence the name. It is hardy here to zone 6, though I have grown it successfully – though I rarely get any flowers.
Hawthorns (Crataegus spp.) are very common France, both in hedgerows and in the wild. I have a green hawthorn (Crataegus viridis), a species commonly used as a street tree for its toughness, medium size, and red berries in winter. Mine is a variety called ‘Winter King’ which is commonly sold. There I saw numerous English Hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata). Interestingly, most had no berries, even though it was the right season for them. Birds don’t seem to like the berries of ‘Winter King”, but I suppose the English hawthorn berries might be appealing to French birds. Or was it revenge on the English for the 100 Years War?
There were so many other interesting plants growing in France I can’t describe them all. I saw purple kale grown decoratively, and sage grown in quantity for the color of its leaves. Fall anemones were common in gardens, and of course the French love their roses. And being on vacation, I always took time to smell the roses. So when you go on vacation, I hope you’ll take note of the plants and e-mail me if you see something wonderful.
Henry can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or at P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746. Please include a self-addressed stamped envelope if asking a question by regular mail.
By now you may have your garden put to bed, raked the leaves and planted spring bulbs. I haven’t, but don’t gloat if you have – there is still work to do. This is the time to prune hardwood trees and shrubs (though not evergreens, which should have been pruned back in July). Take a walk around your property and look for scruffy shrubs or trees with deadwood or crossing branches. Trees are healthier and better looking if pruned regularly, meaning at least once a year.
To me, pruning is a joy. I can’t draw a picture, but I can sculpt a tree, making a messy, un-made bed of a tree into something beautiful. If you haven’t dared to prune, give it a try. Even if you make an “oops!” cut, the tree will recover. Start slowly, never taking off more than 25% of the foliage of a tree or shrub in any given year.
Let’s start with how to prune a shrub. Walk around it 3 times, observing its growth. Is it too tall? Too wide? Is the interior of the shrub cluttered with dozens of small branches? Are there dead branches?
It is easiest to prune once the leaves have fallen so one can see the structure of the plant. My late sister, Ruth Anne, loved to start by sitting down or sprawling out underneath a shrub and looking up through it to see where clutter should be removed. Sometimes I do that too, depending on the species.
Begin by removing any dead branches. You can do that any time of the year. If the leaves have dropped and you are not certain if the branch is dead, rub it with your fingernail. If you see green when you scratch the surface, it is alive. Soon you will also notice that the bark on dead branches is a different color, and the bark is often flakey.
Next, look for branches that are rubbing against others, or branches that shoot through the middle of the shrub. Branches should go up or out, not toward the middle. Remove any that do not follow this rule.
It is important to cut branches so that you do not leave any stubs. Cut back a branch to where it originates, either on a bigger branch or to the trunk. Look for the branch “collar”. This is at the point of origin of a branch and is usually swollen and often wrinkled. Leave the branch collar as that is where the tree will heal itself. If you leave a stub past the branch collar, the stub will have to rot off – a long process – before it can heal. That could allow insects or diseases to damage the tree.
Unlike most trees, many shrubs send up multiple stems from the ground. Forsythia, mock orange and many lilacs do this, for example. If you never cut out some stems, the plant will get broader and denser in habit – and lose its graceful appearance. In general, cutting out old stems and encouraging younger growth will invigorate a shrub.
In my opinion, most trees and shrubs look best if their “legs” are exposed. That means the lower part of the stems shouldn’t have side branches and there shouldn’t be uninvited stems to shoot up from the base. Some apple trees are notorious for sending up unwanted shoots from the roots. Cut them off at the ground for a better looking tree.
Speaking of apple trees, most people think they should be pruned in March. In fact, you can prune them now, too. March is a time when farmers and orchardists had time on their hands. But you do no harm by pruning now. Many apples have lots of water sprouts, those pencil-thick stems that shoot straight up. Every year apple tree produce more, and every year I cut them off.
Deer are bad pruners. They go around trees and shrubs nibbling at twigs. Good pruners take larger branches, opening up a tree or shrub to sunlight and better air circulation with a single cut instead of 50 small ones. Taking a big cut is a bit nerve wracking at first, I suppose, but with practice it gets easier. Many trees and shrubs respond to a cut by branching and growing two or more new branches. Make 50 small cuts and you can have 100 new branches. Make a few big cuts and you get just a few new branches.
To prune well and efficiently you need good tools. Don’t go to a big box store and buy the cheapest pruners you can. Go to your garden center and buy a good pair of by-pass pruners. Felco is the most common brand of the good pruners, though I prefer pruner’s made by Bahco. Mine, the PX type, comes in 3 sizes, and left and right handed versions. I got mine from OESCO Inc. (www.oescoinc.com or 800-634-5557) in Conway, MA. I use them daily, and they seem to last forever – with only an occasional sharpening.
You’ll need a saw and some loppers, too. Don’t get a bow saw, get a nice folding saw with a tri-cut blade. And get geared loppers if you can. Fiskars makes nice ones.
So get to work. Most of us have plenty of pruning to do, and a good fall day is the perfect time to do it.
Henry’s website is www.Gardening-Guy.com. He is on vacation this week and not taking questions.
After a long winter like this past one, I am always grateful for my spring bulbs. Many of them pop up and bloom on schedule, no matter how cold and snowy the winter was. I’ve been planting bulbs around my property since the early 1970’s, and some of them are still flowering each spring. Others run out of energy and disappear with time. If you haven’t done so yet, now is the time to get some and plant them.
First, let’s look at the basics: what makes a bulb plant survive and flourish? Decent soil. It must be well drained. Soggy soil rots bulbs. If you have a heavy clay soil, it will stay wet and is not a good place for bulbs unless you add compost to the planting hole to help it drain better. Planting on a hillside helps, too, as water will drain off a hillside.
Bulb flowers take shade better than sun-loving perennials. Growing up we had hundreds of daffodils that bloomed along a woodland path behind the house. The leaves got sunshine and re-charged the bulbs before the trees were fully leafed out. Of course if you have plenty of sunshine, all the better.
Some people have had great luck planting daffodils in a grassy field or lawn. I’ve done that, but find that the bulb foliage is still green and producing food for the bulb when the lawn needs to be cut. If you cut the foliage too early, your bulbs won’t perform as well. I like to plant daffodils in flower beds between big clumps of hostas. They can bloom early, and then their dying foliage is hidden by the hosta leaves.
Some gardeners dig a little hole for each bulb, but that seems like too much work for me, even if you have one of those tools that are made for digging small round holes. I’d rather use my shovel to dig one oversized hole, one big enough for the 25 bulbs or more. For large bulbs like daffodils or tulips a hole 24 to 36 inches long and 18 to 24 inches wide is fine for 25 bulbs.
For the big bulbs I dig a hole 6 to 8 inches deep. Then I add compost and some organic fertilizer or “bulb booster” fertilizer and stir it into the bottom of the hole. I place the bulbs on the improved soil, pointy end up, and cover with more improved soil.
What about those hungry, bulb-stealing squirrels? They don’t eat daffodils as they are vaguely poisonous. They may dig a few up to see what you planted, but they won’t eat them. “Yech,” they say, if they inadvertently take a bite.
When I interviewed the White House gardener in 1999 he said they planted thousands of tulips each year, despite the rampant squirrels. He said they planted the tulips and covered them with soil, then put down a layer of chicken wire, then more soil. Oh, and he said they fed the squirrels all winter with cracked corn. Squirrels that are not hungry are less likely to try to steal your bulbs. Squirrel welfare.
Some people have great luck with tulips coming back, but I consider them annuals. In general, I find that the second year only half the tulips come back to bloom, the third year only half of those come back and so on. But I often plant 100 tulips, all one color for a blast of color in spring. I particularly like the tall ones that bloom a bit later.
‘Maureen’ is one of my favorite tulips. She is a 28 inch tall tulip, a creamy white that blooms in May. ‘Menton’ blooms at the same time and is rose-pink with apricot-pink petal edges and is 26 inches tall. Wow. They make a nice mix. I have already ordered 100 of each! That way I’ll have too many flowers, and can give away big bunches of them when they bloom.
If you consider your tulips annuals, you can plant them in your vegetable garden and pull them after blooming. Then you can plant tomatoes or something else there. And if you have a deer problem, you can easily fence a small plot for 100 tulips with 4 poles and some bird netting. If you want to mix them into your flower gardens, plant them where you’ll plant annual flowers. When the tulips are done blooming, it will be time to plant annuals.
The little bulbs are great early harbingers of spring, particularly snowdrops. Snowdrops are small white globes on 4 inch stems. Mine fight through frozen soil in early March. Some years (when we have deep snow) I shovel snow off the hillside where they appear so they can bloom on schedule. Each year I have more, so now, after decades, I have a thousand or more.
Other early bloomers include winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis), a small up-ward looking 6-petaled brilliant yellow flower. Another favorite of mine is glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa luciliae). This is a nice blue, with a yellow eye. It blooms shortly after the snowdrops in April.
I can’t praise the spring bulbs enough. I consider them essential for my wellbeing. So order some, or go to your garden center and buy some. You’ll be glad in a few months.
Henry is on vacation this week and will not be answering questions. His website is www.Gardening-Guy.com
I love writing this weekly column. I do it 52 weeks of the year, and have been writing it since the fall of 1998 when I wrote my first column about putting the garden to bed. And the nature of gardening is such that I can write a column a little ahead of time so that I can, for example, go hike the Chemin de St Jacque de Compostelle in southwest France, which I am. Lucky me.
Here are some of the tasks I’d be doing at home this week, if I were there. First, I’d be weeding. Yes, weeds like to set their seeds in the ground in the fall for a new start in the spring. They seem to know that we are tired of pulling weeds now. But don’t let them get away from you. Pulling weeds now will save you lots of work next year – both in the vegetable garden and in the flower garden. A single weed might only produce a few hundred weeds – or up to a million for a mature purple loosestrife.
Before I left I did extra weeding. I love goldenrods, and actually planted some short ones last year, and some shade-loving ones. But the big boys, those goldenrods that get to be 6 feet tall, are too big to co-exist with most garden plants, so they had to come out. I had been leaving them in the ground as bees and other pollinators love the pollen. But before I left they had finished blooming and I dug some out before the seeds got distributed.
A big clump of goldenrod is not something that you can easily just pull out – unless you have a backhoe. First I take my pruners and cut back the stems so I am not fighting them or getting poked in the eye. Then I go around the perimeter of the clump with a shovel or drain spade and try to get under the clump. I push the shovel in on angle, then push down on the handle to see it I can get it to lift a little. When I have gone all the way around, I push down hard, and (hopefully) the clump tips over and I can drag it aside. For purple loosestrife, which has a massive root system, it is better to cut off the tops and burn them (or put in the household trash) than to let the seeds be distributed.
Before I left I also pulled out a lot of jewel weed (a.k.a. touch-me-not). Jewell weed has seed pods that explode when they are ripe, or if you touch them when they are almost ripe. Spring loaded. It is in the genus Impatiens, the same genus as our beloved shade annual. But this one will grow in the sun or shade. I let mine go to seed in recent years so my grandchildren could have the fun of touching them and seeing them explode. But now the population has exploded, so this year I worked hard to get them before seeds were set. They are an annual weed that is easy to pull.
Each fall I like to weed and prepare the beds in the vegetable garden for planting in the spring. I grow my veggies in wide, mounded beds. I like to loosen the soil in the walkways and then rake the soil into my beds. Then I add a layer of compost on top and stir it in. Finally, and I won’t do this until I return, I cover the beds with leaves and grass clippings collected by the lawnmower.
Every October I plant garlic for the next year, and you should, too. Buy seed garlic from your local farmer or get some at the local garden center. Grocery store garlic probably has been chemically treated to keep it from sprouting, so is not good. It is probably not the type we can grow here, which is called hard-neck garlic. Buy it as soon as you can, as many farms run out. I don’t need to buy garlic as I save my biggest and best bulbs of garlic to use as seed garlic.
If you’ve never planted garlic, here is what you do: Prepare a bed and enrich it with plenty of compost. I use my CobraHead weeder, which has a single tine, to make a furrow and then sprinkle in some organic bagged fertilizer, and stir that in. I take a bulb of garlic and separate the cloves – usually 5 to 7 per bulb. The roots are at the fat end, and the pointy end goes up. I plant the cloves about 3 to 4 inches apart and a couple of inches deep. Rows should be about 6 inches apart.
The final, most important thing to do –in terms of saving labor – is to heavily mulch the garlic bed. You can use mulch hay or straw, a layer of the fluffy stuff a foot thick will pack down to 4 inches by the end of winter. Garlic will pop right though that layer, but most weeds will not. And don’t worry if some garlic sprouts before snow flies, it will still re-sprout in the spring.
Last winter I managed to avoid killing my rosemary plant that I had brought in last fall and potted up. So this spring I planted it in the garden, where it has thrived. Now I need to pot it up again. Pot it up in potting soil mixed with compost.
Here’s the trick about bringing in rosemary: Do it now, and let it stay outside in the pot just where it has been all summer. That way you are changing only one variable at a time. If you dig it up and bring it in right away, it not only must get used to life in a pot, but life indoors. In a week or so, bring it inside. . Rosemary should survive temperatures down to 24 or 25 degrees.
And speaking of life indoors, on the next warm day wash all your houseplants with the hose to get off aphids and their eggs. Then let them dry in the sun and bring them in. You’ll have fewer aphids that way.
Henry is on vacation this week and will not be answering questions. His website is www.Gardening-Guy.com
Many people believe that fermented foods – sauerkraut, yogurt, sourdough bread, for example – are better for you than other foods. For thousands of years people have fermented foods as way to preserve them, and scientists today note that fermenting foods can increase their content of vitamin C, thiamine and niacin, among other nutrients. Fermented vegetables help to promote a healthy gut and introduce beneficial bacteria into our bodies. And fermenting food is another way of preserving it for winter use.
We live in a society that minimizes contact with bacteria. Hand sanitizer is big business. Now probiotics (microorganisms introduced into the body for their beneficial qualities) are being sold and promoted in “live” yogurt and other probiotic preparations. But you can use your garden produce to make easy, tasty fermented foods that do much the same.
I recently met with a passionate food “fermentista”, Leslie Silver of Middletown Springs, Vermont and spent an afternoon making sauerkraut and other fermented foods. It’s easy. Leslie also told me about the 3rd Annual Vermont Fermentation Festival on October 3 at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont. It is sponsored by RAFFL (www.rutlandfarmandfood.org) and organized by her. For $10 you can have a full day of learning!
Leslie explained that raw cabbage has naturally occurring bacteria that will ferment the sugars in the leaves without any introduction of bacteria on our part (most fresh fruits and vegetables has good bacteria, too). All we have to do is chop or finely slice the cabbage and add a teaspoon of salt for each pound of cabbage. The salt draws out the water and creates a brine. If you knead the salted cabbage like bread dough, soon there will be lots of liquid.
We packed chopped cabbage and other vegetables into wide-mouth quart jars and pressed out the air, allowing brine to cover the mix. Left open at room temperature the cabbage ferments and creates lactic acid and carbon dioxide that bubbles along, showing me that my sauerkraut is “working”. This kind of fermenting is called lacto-fermentation. (The lacto refers to lactic acid, not anything to do with milk).
Eventually the lactic acid brings the pH down to about 4.0, which stops the fermenting – and prevents other, harmful bacteria from affecting the food. Those same bacteria that cure the sauerkraut are beneficial to our gut.
If you want to learn how to make sauerkraut and other fermented veggies, I recommend working with an expert to really get first-hand knowledge of how to do it. We made 4 different recipes in 4 hours including 3 kinds of sauerkraut and a corn relish. All are delicious.
As an author (and a person of a certain age) I like to have a book in hand when learning a new skill. Leslie recommended Fermented Vegetables: Creative Recipes for Fermenting 64 Kinds of Vegetables in Krauts, Kimchis, Brined Pickles, Chutneys, Relishes & Pastes by Kirsten and Christopher Shockey, published by Storey Publishing. I got it, and like it. It has lots of good color photos and nice recipes. It explains the process well, without being overly technical.
The other book I got was a New York Times bestseller by Sandor Katz called The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World, published by Chelsea Green Publishing. This is also a great resource with information not only about fermenting vegetables, but also fruits, grains, milk, beans, meat and more. It has a glowing introduction from food writer Michael Pollan, who I trust. It’s excellent. The book is nearly 500 pages long, and seems to cover all aspects of fermenting, including lots of technical stuff.
Materials for fermenting veggies are minimal: You need a large bowl, containers and large sharp knife. Leslie also had a kraut board with 3 sharp blades. Run a cabbage across it and the shredded cabbage falls into the bowl.
We made small batches and put our krauts in wide-mouth glass jars. But, having fallen in love with specialty sauerkrauts, I have ordered from Gardeners Supply Company (www.gardeners.com or 888-833-1412) a 1.3 gallon Fermentation Crock kit, complete with lid and weights to keep the veggies in the brine (they tend to rise). I have old crocks, but this one has a water seal that allows the carbon dioxide to get out while keeping extraneous bacteria and yeasts out. For about $80, it seems like a good investment.
My krauts are tastier than any I’d ever had. In one I added fresh ginger, another has fennel seeds. It’s a good way to use kohlrabi, carrots, celeriac, too. I’ll be making more later this fall – once I get my new crock.
Henry is the author of 4 gardening books. He is not answering questions this week. His website is www.Gardening-Guy.com.