Spring Activities



Snowdrops

Snowdrops

Spring has been slow in showing its colors. Snowdrops, usually up in early March at my house, were a month late. Crocus, the early ones, and winter aconite (a flower that is a nice school bus yellow color) are finally blooming. But everything is slow, and the ground is still frozen a few inches down. I won’t be planting anything outside for weeks.

 

So what can we do on a warm, sunny day? Maybe we better start by thinking about what NOT to do. Don’t rake the lawn while the soil is still soggy. I recently saw a fellow raking his lawn – even though there was still snow on it in places. Soil structure can be damaged if you compress it and squeeze out all the air spaces in it. This is easily done by walking on it when the soil is still frozen and wet – it’s very fragile. And it’s easy to rip out your grass with a rake if it hasn’t woken up and turned green.

 

Don’t rototill your vegetable garden early, either. If you are going to rototill, wait until the soil is good and dry. Take a handful of soil and squeeze it into a ball or cylinder. Then, with your other hand, tap it with a finger. It should fall apart. You want the soil crumbly before rototilling, though some clay soils never get to that point. Rototilling sticky wet soil can create heavy clods that roots will not easily penetrate.
early crocus

 

So what can you do now? As soon as the snow disappears you can collect a soil sample and send it off to your state university extension service. Just Google “soil test” and your state, and you will find where to send a sample and how to collect it. I usually sun dry a sample on a cookie sheet, and remove any bits of grass, roots and rocks. As a rule of thumb, it is good to collect your sample from the depth where roots will be. For most things, that is 4 to 6 inches deep.

 

If you live in a house that was built before 1978, its exterior paint probably has some lead in it. Lead paint has been shown to contaminate soil and to be picked up by plants; this is most severe within 20 feet of the house, or even further if you are on a hill. Testing for heavy metals can be expensive: in New Hampshire the test for it is $65. But if you have small children and will be gardening near the house, it is a worthwhile one-time investment. Children are most severely affected by lead poisoning.

 

This lawn should not be raked yet

This lawn should not be raked yet

Root crops are the worst offenders when it comes to picking up lead and arsenic, another heavy metal. Lead was an additive to gasoline up until 1996 in most states, and lead from exhaust can still be a problem within 100 feet of a major highway. Arsenic was used as an insecticide, particularly in apple orchards up until the 1980’s, either as lead arsenate or calcium arsenate. Heavy metal compounds like that do not dissipate or disappear easily or quickly.

 

So how can you improve your soil? In a word, compost. Good compost is biologically active, meaning that it is full of beneficial microorganisms – bacteria and fungi. Later, when my lawn has turned green, I may spread some compost on it to improve the soil. All I do is fling compost over the lawn with a shovel, and then use a lawn rake to even it out.

 

Half an inch of compost spread out over the lawn will help a lot, particularly if you have used chemicals on the lawn. Fertilizers and particularly “Weed-n-Feed” products inhibit the growth and survival of microbes that will give your lawn that springy feel when you walk on it barefoot this summer. Compost adds organic matter and carbon to feed microbes that can’t use photosynthesis to get their own food. Earthworms love compost, too. Add compost, and they will come and help to get it down into the soil.

 

I have, carefully, raked leaves off one of my bulb beds. I did so recently. I was delighted to see, beneath a layer of leaves, the tips of daffodils and other bulbs were showing. I didn’t walk into the bed, as that would compact the soil, so I just reached what I could from the edge. That meant the back of the bed stayed unraked for now.

winter aconite

winter aconite

 

I have been known to lay down boards to walk on to avoid soil compaction at this time of year. Six-inch wide boards cut in five-foot lengths are good: they are light enough to move around, but do a good job of distributing my weight. Two or three is all you need. And once, to avoid compacting the soil, I wore my snowshoes. The neighbors probably thought I was crazy!
This is a good time of year to do a little maintenance on your tools. Take a big, rough file and sharpen the edges of your shovels and hoes. Just try to mimic the angle that exists already. A sharp tool works so much better than a dull one.

 

I apply boiled linseed oil once a year to keep wooden handles from drying out. I paint it on, let it soak in, and then rub the handles with a rag to polish them up. The handle on my potato hoe, which I got from my family’s garage 30 years ago, is probably 50 years old – but still smooth, strong and splinter-free because I take good care of it.
So don’t rush into spring. Enjoy a warm lazy day from the deck and know that soon the soil will be dry enough to start raking.

 

Henry Homeyer has a new book: The New Hampshire Gardener’s Companion, Second Edition. This edition has 2 new chapters and updated information in all chapters. His e-mail is henry.homeyer@comcast.net.

 

 

 

Ikebana: Arranging Flowers in a Japanese Artform



Some people collect salt and pepper shakers, others license plates or stuffed teddy bears. I collect different species of flowers that I grow in my garden. Although I lost track long ago, I grow well over 100 species and varieties of flowers, probably over 200. If I see something new at a green house, I have to try it. I love them outdoors, but most I grow so that I can have flowers in the house. I love to make flower arrangements, and have been doing it for decades.

 

Ikebana or conventional

Ikebana or conventional

Recently I met with Joanne Wise of Grantham, NH to learn about a Japanese way of arranging flowers, an art form called Ikebana. Joanne lived in Tokyo for four years and apprenticed under an Ikebana master. I brought a generous bouquet of cut flowers with me, and Joanne provided the expertise, containers and frogs (which are heavy objects with sharp needles poking up to hold flowers in place in a vase).

 

Joanne explained that there are at least nine schools of Ikebana in Japan, and that she was trained in one called Sogetsu. Ikebana developed in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries when shoguns (feudal leaders) ordered certain artists to create flower arrangements to bring natural beauty indoors, infusing nature to their palaces. Over time, different styles have developed.

 

According to Joanne, Ikebana arrangements should have strong lines, usually created by branches, often bare branches. Arrangements also include flowers, of course, but are generally very simple. Some styles use stone and water or even sand as part of the arrangement, often in a simple low bowl.

 

My ikebana

My ikebana

My first arrangement under Joanne’s supervision was in a low Ikebana bowl, a ceramic rectangle about two and a half inches deep. I placed a frog in the middle and then selected two bare branches, which I pinned in place on the frog. I cut the ends of the branches at an angle so that I could more easily push them onto the needles of the frog. A straight cut produces a round cross-sectional cut, but one on a 45 degree angle yields a nice oval with more space to grab the upward facing pins of the frog.

 

Each branch was placed at an angle of about 30 to 45 degrees off vertical – and the second branch was roughly parallel to the first. Next I placed a stem of delphinium going off in the opposite direction. I stripped off the lower blossoms from the stem, which served to establish a strong visual line. Later I used the blossoms I had taken off to help hide the frog in the bowl.

 

Simplicity is an important component of Ikebana, so I added just one bright red tulip. The tulip wove its way through the two bare sticks, adding a punch of color. I left the leaves on because they added a simple splash of green. Joanne removed a bit of fern frond that came free with the flowers and used it in the base of the arrangement to help cover the frog.

 

Getting flowers and sticks to stay in place in an arrangement can be difficult. Joanne taught me some nifty tricks that I will use in arrangements – whether Ikebana or conventional.

 

The first trick is how to attach a narrow stem to a frog. It’s impossible to do if the stem is smaller than the needle, or nearly so, which is often the case. Joanne showed me how to use a one-inch piece of stem from a tulip or daffodil (or other fat, juicy stem) to create a sleeve that can hold a thin stem inside it. She just poked a tooth pick into the tulip stem, making a small hole that allowed her to insert the thin stem of a single delphinium blossom inside the tulip stem. The tulip stem, along with the blossom, was easily attached to the frog.

 

Using a small section of a tulip stem as a sleeve  for a flower stem too small to pn to a frog

Using a small section of a tulip stem as a sleeve for a flower stem too small to pn to a frog

One arrangement we created was in a tall narrow ceramic vase which precluded using a frog in the bottom to hold stems in place. When Joanne wanted to keep 2 sticks together in that arrangement, she used a narrow Velcro strip as a fastener. She tied the sticks together down low, so that the ceramic vase hid the Velcro but the sticks stayed close together.

 

Joanne uses many different kinds of flowers in her arrangements, but only a few at a time. Some flowers that work well in Ikebana include Siberian iris, alstroemeria, tulips, Irish bells, forsythia, goose-necked loosestrife and chrysanthemums. I prefer to work with flowers like lisianthus or chrysanthemums that will last a week or more in an arrangement, but also appreciate iris and tulips that might only last a few days. Tulips, by the way, will move in an arrangement, bending or twisting their stems – sometimes in opposition to the laws of gravity.
Trying to define Ikebana is, for me, a bit like trying to define love, a fabulous meal or a great bottle of wine. You can describe the ingredients, but there has to be a chemistry that makes it work. As I see it, simplicity and elegance are keys to Ikebana. A lack of clutter is important. Joanne made one arrangement using 2 tulips and a stem of loosestrife in an urn-shaped blue vase with a narrow neck. It could be considered Ikebana, or just a simple conventional flower arrangement.

 

On another note, go outside today and notice where the snow has melted off the ground first near your house. That is where you should plan on planting early-blooming spring bulbs next fall. Take a photo or place a plastic marker to remind yourself next fall. We all need flowers as soon as we can get them.

 

Henry’s book, The New Hampshire Gardener’s Companion is just out in a second edition with 2 new chapters and updated material, including pests and diseases common in New England.

Starting Seeds Indoors



After arguably the coldest, snowiest winter on record, I am ready for spring. Okay, maybe the winter of 1934 was colder. So what? I still have snow, and my woodpile is pathetic. I am picking up sticks and burning soggy remnants of previous woodpiles. To keep my spirits up on raw, gray days, I plant seeds indoors.

 

I started back in March, planting artichokes, onions, leeks and peppers. Now I am planting the brassicas: Brussels sprouts, broccoli and kale. Those hardy souls can go out around the time of the last frost, even if the ground is still cool. My tomatoes, the queens of the garden, I will start closer to mid-April and go in the garden in June – well after the last frost – when the soil warms up to 60 or more.

 

One key to success with plants indoors is having enough light. A bright, sunny windowsill might be enough for the first couple of weeks in a plant’s life, but to grow good healthy tomato plants for 8 weeks requires artificial lighting.

 

Shop lights are relatively inexpensive: a two-tube, four-foot fluorescent fixture should cost under $20, plus the bulbs to go in them – which vary widely in price. You don’t need fancy “Gro-Lights”. Those mimic the spectrum of daylight, but for starting lettuce and tomatoes for the garden, ordinary cheap tubes work just fine. And if you can mix cool white and warm white tubes, you can have something close to daylight wave lengths.

Homemade plant stand

 

A few years ago I built a simple wood A-frame plant stand that has worked out well for me. It uses 3 fixtures and will illuminate 6 flats of seedlings. I suggested at the time that your local lumber yard will be glad to take your parts list and cut lumber to the appropriate sizes. To get the directions, go to my website (www.Gardening-Guy.com) and type in “Plant Stand” in the search engine, and the article will come up. Or send me a self-addressed, stamped envelope and I will mail you the directions.

 

Another item that will help you is an electric heat mat to put under the flats while your seeds are getting ready to germinate. Most seeds have a protective mechanism to keep them from germinating too early. They need the soil to reach a certain temperature in order to know that winter has gone by. Garden centers sell 2 sizes: enough for one flat, or enough for four flats.

 

Last spring I started all my corn indoors in plug trays (containers with over 100 planting places per flat) and put them on a heat mat. They germinated in just 3 days – but would have taken 10 or more outdoors. Corn sometimes rots if the soil is cold and wet. Crows love to steal corn when it is first up, but I planted the seedlings when 3 inches tall and they rooted right in, so the crows didn’t steal a single one.

 

Moisture is another important factor when starting seeds indoors. Get your planting mix thoroughly moist before you plant. That can be done by placing a tray of planting soil in six-packs in a flat with water in it, and letting the water soak up from the bottom. Or pour water into the bag of soil mix the day before using it.

 

If the soil mix dries out when seeds are just starting to crack open and send out a rootlet, your seedlings will die. You can prevent that by covering the planted six packs with a plastic dome. These are clear plastic so you can see what is happening, and so that the seedlings that have germinated can get light while others are still waking up. By the time your seedlings are two inches tall, they will be crowding the dome and you should remove it.

 

Have you ever had bad germination rates? I have. It could be due to bad seed or old seed. In general it is best to buy new seeds every other year, even if you have plenty. Most seeds are good for 3 years or even longer – but at a lower germination rate.

 

But bad germination may also be due to the position of the moon and stars. I have been following a celestial calendar called “Stella Natura” (www.stellanatura.com) for a few years now, and although I can’t prove that its advice is right, I’ve had some interesting results.

 

I planted lettuce seeds on a “leaf” day, and then some more the following day, which was a “blackout” day (not recommended for planting anything). Even though I used the same seed package and planting mixture, I got a very low germination rate for seeds planted on a blackout day, but the others did well. The calendar has good days for planting fruits, flowers, roots and leaves. But this year I followed the calendar and still got very low germination for my artichokes, so who knows?

 

Remember when you calculate the cost of your tomatoes that building a plant stand for $50 and then buying lights for $100 is a multi-year investment. If you like messing around with plants in spring, starting seedlings indoors is a good idea. You can get rare and unusual seeds from catalogs that you would never find at your local farm stand. And, as one of my fridge magnets says, Gardening is Cheaper Than Therapy!

 

Henry Homeyer is a fruit tree pruner and gardening consultant. Contact him at henry.homeyer@comcast.net or P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746.

 

A New Way to Grow and Display Indoor Plants: Kokebana

Posted on Thursday, March 26, 2015 · Leave a Comment 



This is the time of year when I am chomping at the bit, all ready to garden, but without much I can do outside. So I was delighted to visit a friend in Maine who was experimenting with a new art form/planting technique: kokebana. This is a Japanese technique for hanging plants indoors – without using pots of any sort of pot, instead wrapping them with moss and strings.
Kokebana

 

Doing some online research I found that kokebana is also called kokedama, which means ”moss ball” in Japanese. I made three plants into kokebana plants, and it was a great, messy project that made me feel like I was a kid making mud pies. Not bad for a mudseason afternoon.

 

Kokebana is most successful if you choose small epiphytic plants – though apparently some people even hang small trees as kokebana. Epiphytes are plants that, in their natural state, grow in trees. They do not send roots into the trees or obtain any nutrition from the trees, they just use a tree for a safe haven. Epiphytes might benefit from the remnants of a few rotting leaves or some windblown soil provide a few minerals. They get water when it rains, but generally don’t require much.

 

Explaining epiphytes to my grandson George, age 11, I said that they did well because they are adapted to grow where nothing else can grow. They’re like those weeds that grow in your driveway: there is no competition. They make good houseplants, too, because they generally do well with little or no direct sunshine and many can go weeks – even months – without getting watered. My kind of houseplants.

 

To get the materials for this project I went to Longacres Nursery Center in Lebanon, NH. They have a greenhouse packed with all kinds of tropicals, including many epiphytes. I brought a list of good plants for kokebana I’d put together after some online research. Included were Antherium, bromeliads of all sorts, and many orchids. I bought three plants and took them home to make into kokebana.

 

I went online to see what I could learn about kokebana, and found surprisingly little information. I watched one YouTube video (How to make a String Garden) that showed in high speed how to make a plant into a kokebana, but when I tried their technique, it didn’t work.

 

They placed strings in a bowl, then lined it with sphagnum moss, added a few stones as ballast, then potting soil and a plant. In fast forward, they tied all the strings around the plant and hung it up. No mess. When I took my attempt at a kokebana out of the pot, everything fell apart.

 

Having invested in 3 houseplants for this project, I tried another way. I cut 36-inch long pieces of garden twine and spread out 6 or 8 pieces on a table, all intersecting in the middle. Then I spread a layer of sphagnum moss over the strings, creating a disk about a foot across and three quarters of an inch deep. I had moistened the moss, but it was not drippy. I tried to keep the long fibers from separating when I pulled out a chunk from the package so that it would stay together.
Preparing a kokebana

 

Next a spread a layer of moist potting soil over the sphagnum. I loosened the roots of my plant and placed the plant on top of the potting soil. Then the tricky part: forming a ball around the root ball, and surrounding it with the strings. I tried to pull up all the strings at once and hold them with one hand while using the other to form the ball and encircle it with string. Surprisingly, I could do that. My potting soil was a bit sticky, which helped. If I did it again and had some clay, I would mix some into the potting soil.

 

My strings around the ball were pretty random – this was not a root ball that had evenly placed strings confining it. But the sphagnum moss acted like a screen, holding in the soil. I cut two 48-inch strings, ran them around the ball, and used them for hanging the kokebana ball in my window.

 

I started with the kokebana in an east-facing window, thinking that some morning light would be good. But they dried out completely in 3 days, and I was worried that I might kill them if I ignored them for a week. So I moved them to a north-facing window where they got bright indirect light, but no direct sunshine. This seems to have worked better.

 

Soaking the balls seems like the best way to replenish moisture. But it also means that the balls will drip after soaking. I put them in the dish drainer for an hour after soaking, but they still dripped when hung. So I have also tried using a spray bottle to give them water. It requires more frequent applications of water, but it is less messy – I found that moving the kokebana plants for soaking left little bits of sphagnum moss on the windowsill and the table near it. Spraying was more labor intensive, but a bit tidier.

 

Spring is technically here, as of March 20. Couldn’t prove it by me – there is still snow when I look out the window. But at least I have 3 handsome plants hanging in a window and two of them are in bloom!

 

Henry Homeyer lives and gardens in Cornish Flat, NH. He is the author of 4 gardening books and one children’s chapter book. His website is www.Gardening-Guy.com.

 

 

 

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Pruning Apple Trees

Posted on Wednesday, March 18, 2015 · Leave a Comment 



Often the snow on the hilly south side of my house has melted by early March, allowing snowdrops to push their little noses out of the ground and permitting me to pick buds that open up indoors. Most years by mid-March the snow has melted enough to allow me to get out and move around my apple trees to prune them. Not this year. Snow is still knee-deep here and not disappearing very quickly. It will be April before I get to do much pruning.

 

The first step in pruning is to really take a good long look at the tree. Are there dead branches? They must go. Are there branches rubbing? You must remove one or the other. What about what I call “invaders”? Invaders are branches that “see” an empty spot and grow willy-nilly through the center of the tree to grab the sunshine. Off with it! Is the interior crowded? If so, it needs work.

Apple fruit spurs

Apple fruit spurs

 

Where you make your pruning cuts is important for tree health. Don’t cut branches flush to the trunk or a bigger branch. Don’t cut into the swollen area at the base of a branch, an area called the branch collar. You can often see a distinct edge to the collar where the wrinkles in the bark in the branch collar stop and smooth bark of the branch begin. But don’t cut off branches too far from the trunk, either. That creates stubs that will die and slowly rot away – leaving an open wound where disease can enter.

 

In general, it is better to take a few bigger branches than lots of little ones. You can safely remove 20 to 25 percent of a tree’s leaves when pruning, though a well-tended tree won’t even need that much. The amount of wood is less important than the number of leaves, though that is a bit difficult to determine in winter. Pruning an old, neglected apple tree might be done with just a few cuts to remove big branches that are competing with the tree’s central leader or cluttering up the interior of the tree. Then in subsequent years you might work on smaller branches.

 

If you want blossoms and fruit, you can see if a branch will produce apples by looking for fruit spurs. Fruit spurs are gnarly little branches – usually just 3 or 4 inches long – that grow off bigger branches, branches that are at least two or three years old. At the tip of each spur is a cluster of buds that will produce leaves and flowers. If you are deciding whether to remove a branch, look for fruit spurs before cutting. Fruit spurs will not produce fruit in their first year.

 

Apples (and crabapples) tend to send up lots of waterspouts. These start as pencil-thick twigs shooting straight up from bigger branches. They are often a stress response: in summer they grow to produce leaves in the cool interior of a tree when the outer leaves have stopped producing food for the tree because it’s too hot. So even if you cut them out every year, more will come –often in the same place. Same varieties of trees send out a lot of water sprouts, others just a few. If you leave them in place, they will eventually become full sized nuisance branches cluttering up your tree.

 

A few words about bad crotches. Fruit bearing branches should be at an angle of 45 to 60 degree angle from the main trunk. A bad crotch angle (30 degrees or less) exist when there is a very tight angle between two stems. If the stems develop heavy fruit loads or are subject to heavy ice and snow loads, the weak crotch may break open, damaging the tree.

 

Fixing a bad crotch

Fixing a bad crotch

Breaking of bad crotches occurs because as the branches grow, they grow together, enclosing bark – and creating a week spot. Prune one of the two branches to correct the problem. Do this when a tree is young if you can. Some trees are more prone to bad crotches than others. Maples, for example, often are full of bad crotch angles (but don’t prune them in spring as they will bleed excessively).

 

Apples produce the most fruit on branches that are more horizontal than vertical. Sometimes I weight down young branches to make them more horizontal. A milk jug with some water in it will do the job – and you can increase the weight to just the right amount by tying on the jug and adding water. Do that in mid-April and remove it on the Fourth of July.

 

For me, pruning is not just about getting the most flowers or fruit from a tree, it’s about creating a beautiful form. In winter, especially, I enjoy looking at a well-pruned tree as sculpture. If a tree has big branches hacked off to create a tree with a short profile – as some are in commercial orchards – it is not pleasing to the eye. A tree that tapers toward the top and has nicely spaced branches looks good – and produces a good fruit load, too. Experts say that an apple tree should generally have a central leader or stem that dominates the tree and grows up the middle of it.

 

Pruning apple trees is one of my seasonal joys. I love sculpting the trees, making them lovely to the eye, healthier and more productive, too. A well pruned apple tree should have enough space between branches that a robin can fly through it – without getting hurt. Un-pruned tree? It’s a messy as an unmade bed. And climbing up an old apple on a blue-sky day to prune it makes me feel like a boy again. I can’t wait.

 

Henry Homeyer is a professional pruner and the author of 4 gardening books. Reach him at P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746 or henry.homeyer@comcast.net. His website is www.Gardening-Guy.com.

 

 

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Spring Activities Indoors

Posted on Wednesday, March 11, 2015 · Leave a Comment 



I am NOT going to kill my rosemary plant this March. Really. It is so easy to do, and most of us who grow rosemary have done it at least once. We get a perfectly nice rosemary plant through the winter, and then in March we kill it. Why? Because the sun is stronger, hotter, and because our plants are waking up after a winter’s semi-dormancy and starting to grow. All of that means our plants need more water.

 

I called Sarah Milek of Cider Hill Gardens in Windsor, Vermont, who is an expert grower of herbs (and all plants, really). She confirmed that rosemary needs more water now. And she said March is also a good time to re-pot rosemary. Your rosemary wants to put on new growth now, both roots and leaves. But if the roots are tangled and snarled, or if the pot is full of roots, the plant really cannot grow well.

 

Teasing out rosemary roots with a fork

Teasing out rosemary roots with a fork

I took my rosemary plant, which is growing in a 5 inch diameter pot, and knocked it out of the pot: I turned it upside down over the kitchen sink, and gave it a sharp rap on the bottom of the pot with the heel of my hand. Then, with a gentle tug, I slid it out of the pot. I was looking for dead, brown roots – signs of overwatering and decay that need to be removed – but saw none. The roots were light-colored and in good health. They did not break when tugged on.

 

Rather than using a bigger pot, I decided to cut back the roots a bit to stimulate new growth, and to allow me to add fresh potting mix to the pot. Sarah Milek suggests using a kitchen fork to open up the roots and loosen the potting soil attached to the roots. Then it’s easy to cut back the roots with scissors. But, Sarah warned, don’t be overly drastic. A gentle haircut is all that is needed.

 

I added three quarters of an inch of fresh potting soil at the bottom of the pot and placed my rosemary in it. Then I poured in fresh potting soil around the edges and tamped it down.

 

Cutting back rosemary roots

Cutting back rosemary roots

Sarah reminded me that rosemary likes to grow with some humidity in the air – which is tough for a household like mine that uses a woodstove every day. She suggested I place some gravel in a dish or pan, and then water the stones before placing the potted rosemary on top of the stones. I’ve also heard that spraying the leaves with a fine mist of water makes rosemary very happy – though my tough love approach to houseplants generally precludes that.

 

Temperature is important for success with rosemary, and houseplants in general. Most plants do not want a very warm spot, so keep them away from radiators and wood stoves. In this season a south or west-facing window can get pretty hot in the afternoon, so an eastern exposure is better.

 

I asked Sarah Milek what other houseplants needed attention at this time of year. She mentioned geraniums (Pelergonium spp.). Most of us grow geraniums for their big red, pink or white blossoms that shine on seemingly forever. But in the course of a winter indoors, many have gotten leggy – with long stems, that is. The solution? Cut them back now. I generally cut back to a node, and then take the cutting and root it in water.

 

Sarah says rooting geraniums is better done in moist perlite. Perlite, the fluffy white stuff in potting mix, can be purchased in bags at the garden center. It is not Styrofoam, which it resembles, but a heat-expanded mineral made like popcorn in an industrial oven at very high temperatures. It holds moisture well but also releases it to plants when needed. It has a neutral pH. Sarah says you should tent your geranium cuttings – put them in a clear plastic bag so that they do not lose moisture.

 

Perlite is very light weight, so larger cuttings can easily tip over if using a lightweight plastic pot. A heavier ceramic pot would prevent that, or you could place stones or sand in the bottom of a plastic pot. Perlite provides no nutrition so once they are rooted, you need to give them a light dose of fertilizer weekly. Fish or seaweed fertilizer diluted to one quarter the regular dose is fine.

 

Other indoor activities for the cabin-fever-feeling gardener include starting some vegetables of flowers from seed. I have started onions, leeks and artichokes – all plants that need a long time from seeding to maturity. In mid-March I will plant hot pepper seeds, and then tomatoes, broccoli, kale and other veggies in early to mid-April.

 

If you have never grown artichokes, you might want to. There are several kinds of seeds available, including Green Globe, Purple of Romagna, Opera and ‘Imperial Star’. In past years when growing Green Globe artichokes, I followed the dictum that you must move them into a 50 degree growing space for 2 weeks at the 3 or 4 leaf stage to fool them into thinking they had lived through a winter. That meant setting up lights in my cold basement. But Imperial Star and Opera (a purple one I have not yet tried) are both grown for annual production, and do not need that cold period. Much easier. My artichoke plants produce 3-7 small chokes each year, but are also very pretty plants suitable for a flower garden.

 

Spring is just around the corner – and my rosemary plant knows it. It’ll be happier since this year I’m being attentive to its needs.

 

Henry is a UNH Master Gardener and the author of 4 gardening books. His book The New Hampshire Gardener’s Companion will be out in an expanded second edition later this month. His website is www.Gardening-Guy.com.

 

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The Tao of Vegetable Gardening

Posted on Wednesday, March 4, 2015 · Leave a Comment 



Winter trudges along, bringing us snow and sub-zero temperatures, seemingly ignoring the calendar that tells us Spring is officially less than a month away. In between shoveling and carrying firewood I’ve spent considerable time reading this winter. My favorite gardening book this winter is The Tao of Vegetable Gardening: Cultivating Tomatoes, Greens, Peas, Beans, Squash, Joy and Serenity by Carol Deppe (Chelsea Green, $24.95 in paper).
 

Tao Vegetable Cover

Tao Vegetable Cover

It is rare that a good technical book also deals with joy and serenity, which is part of what distinguishes this book from others. I called Carol Deppe at her home in Oregon and she is as enthusiastic in life as she is in her book. She wrote a chapter in her book called, simply, “Joy.” We are, she asserts, originally hunters and gatherers. Many of us are wired to enjoy gardening – as a way to gather. Recognizing what we love to do, and doing it, makes for a happy person.
 

The book is full of useful information. When considering a new book I first skim a chapter that is about something I know well. So, for example, if I can learn about tomatoes, I want the book. I did. Carol Deppe has a PhD in biology and has been breeding plants and doing garden research for decades.
 

So what did I learn about tomatoes? First, that I may be fertilizing them too much, producing big plants but perhaps fewer tomatoes overall than I might. I give each plant a little Pro-Gro (a slow release organic fertilizer) at planting time even though my soil is rich and dark. This year I will plant half with, and half without the fertilizer. And I will keep records.
 

Carol maintains that irregular watering not only can cause cracking of fruit (which I knew), but that it can also affect flavor, which I did not know. She recommends mulching as a way to keep roots consistently moist, then watering before the soil is dead dry. I mulch, but rarely water – though my soil only dries out in times of drought.
 

Another factor affecting flavor is temperature. Tomatoes, her book says, taste best if picked in the late afternoon on a sunny day. Cold nights and cool mornings do not help tomato flavor. She often picks 2 to 4 days before full ripeness, and finishes them off indoors where it is consistently warm. Many of the best tasting heirlooms have unripe shoulders even when the rest of the tomato is dead ripe, she wrote, and should be eaten before the shoulders ripen.
 

She is more attentive to crop rotation than I am. In a small garden there is little space to rotate crops on a 3 year cycle (which she does) – especially since much of what I grow is in the same family: tomatoes, potatoes, peppers (and eggplant, though I don’t grow it). Those plants should not overlap, she says, or be planted in ground that had one of them in the past 2 years.
 

From the book I learned of some seed companies I haven’t used before and tomato varieties that sound great. From Nichols Garden Nursery (www.nicholsgardennursery.com) I have ordered tomatoes that Carol likes including ‘Legend’, an early tomato (68 days) that produces one-pound tomatoes and is parthenocarpic. That means it can produce fruits without pollination, doing so in cold weather that is not conducive to releasing pollen. She says it is highly tolerant of two late blight strains, too. I never knew there are different strains of the blight.
 

Nichols Nursery also sells ‘Pruden’s Purple’, ‘Black Krim’ and ‘Geranium Kiss’, others that Carol recommends. ‘Prudens Purple’ is an heirloom that Carol says has flavor as good as ‘Brandywine’, but 2 to 3 weeks earlier. I will try it. ‘Black Krim’, the book explains, reaches full flavor when still half green and firm. If picked when it looks fully ripe, it is overripe, even rotten. I made that mistake once, and never grew it again. ‘Geranium Kiss’, bred by Alan Kapuler (www.peaceseeds.com), is an open pollinated determinate tomato that is very resistant to late blight and produces big clusters of 1 to 2 ounce fruits.
 

What else did I learn from this book? I learned about ‘Green Wave’ mustard. Carol Deppe broadcasts seed on a weed-free garden bed and then bounces a lawn rake over the soil to disturb the soil and cover the seed. She lets this cooking green grow until it is about 10 inches tall – in about 8 weeks. Then she cuts the top 7 inches off and cooks it up for dinner, or blanches and freezes it. Green Wave is blazingly hot if eaten raw (spicy enough to deter deer), but mild and flavorful after cooking. Seeds are available from her website, www.caroldeppe.com, or from Johnny’s Selected Seeds (www.johnnyseeds.com).
 

Unlike spinach, Green Wave has real substance after cooking, like kale, so it is good for freezing. And the leaves and stems both are edible when grown in a dense planting (which also shades out weeds). If grown as well spaced out individual plants, the stems are tough and not edible.
 

The Tao of Vegetable Gardening has a chapter on cooking greens that can be grown like Green Wave, a technique she calls “the Eat-All Garden Greens Method”. The fact that the greens are fast growing means you can harvest 2 crops on the same spot, even here in frigid New England. Carol suggested to me that I plant ‘Green Wave’ after the summer solstice to avoid bolting.

So if you’re still housebound and bored, get a copy of this book and gather some new ideas. It’s good reading in addition to being technically useful. And visit Carol’s website for other seeds, books, articles and further information.
 

Henry is the author of 4 gardening books, and lectures on gardening. His website is www.Gardening-Guy.com.

 

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Growing Mushrooms

Posted on Wednesday, February 25, 2015 · Leave a Comment 



I’ve been growing mushrooms outdoors on logs for about 20 years. I’ve done this by inoculating logs with little wooden plugs called plug spawn that I purchased and inserted into holes I drilled in the logs. Then I let them develop in the shade of a hemlock tree where they generally produce mushrooms in a year or less. Pretty easy. The best time to cut logs for growing mushrooms is late winter or early spring when the sap begins to run, so I am thinking about getting some logs soon and starting another batch. After all, there isn’t much else I can do in the garden for months.
 

Shiitakes growing in a log in summer

Shiitakes growing in a log in summer

The first step in the process of growing mushroom is finding logs that are appropriate for the mushrooms you want to grow. I have used oak and poplar for growing shiitake mushrooms, but according to Paul Stamets’ book, Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, almost any deciduous tree species is fine for shiitakes, the mushrooms I have grown in the past. Pine, hemlock and other conifers are not recommended.
 

The logs you plan to use to raise shiitakes or other mushrooms need to be fresh. If you were to go in the woods and find a downed tree, it probably would already have fungi growing in the wood (mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi). So you need to cut down a living tree (or better yet, have a person skilled with a chain saw cut it down for you). Or call up someone who sells firewood and explain what you want: logs 3 to 4 feet long and 4 to 8 inches in diameter that are freshly cut.
 

In the past I have most often inoculated poplar logs because the trees are fast growing, and I always have some ‘volunteers’ that need to be removed. Oaks are the species most commonly colonized by shiitakes in their native habitat of Japan, and produce for a longer time than poplar, but take longer to produce their first flush of mushrooms – up to 14 months. And they are a tree species I value, so it’s harder to sacrifice one.
 

I learned from Mycelium Running that not just shiitakes can be raised on logs. These species will also work, and are available from Stamets’ web site, www.fungi.com: Reishi, Maitake, Lion’s Mane, Pearl, Blue and Phoenix Oyster, Chicken of the Woods and Turkey Tail.
 

Drilling holes for shiitake spawn

Drilling holes for shiitake spawn

So how do I inoculate my logs? Using a 5/16-inch drill bit, I drill lines of holes about 8 inches apart from one end to the other. Then I drill another row of holes 4 to 6 inches from the first row. I stagger the holes so they don’t line up next to each other, from row to row. Then, with a hammer, I tap in the spore plugs that I have purchased. The holes should go a bit deeper into the wood than the length of the plug.
 

Finally, I melt some food grade wax (or natural bee’s wax) and paint the ends of the plugs. The wax prevents insects and bacteria that might consume the inoculant before the mycelium (fungal roots) extend and colonize the log. I have also tried inserting thimble spawn, which is made out of sawdust and has an attached Styrofoam cap. I find these are less satisfactory, as the caps do not always stay attached.
 

Paul Stamets is a self-avowed mushroom freak. He loves everything about them, and has found ways to grow edible and medicinal mushrooms, starting from wild harvested mushrooms. He describes several interesting ways of growing mushroom that I have not tried, but might this summer. Obviously I will only use mushrooms for propagation that I have had positively identified by a mushroom expert – some mushroom are deadly poisonous.
 

He describes inoculating piles of wood chips, burlap bags of wood chips and layers of cardboard, starting with what he calls “stem butts” from wild mushrooms. He digs up some of the root-like structures attached to the mushroom, along with the mushroom, and then cuts the edible portion off an inch or so above ground level. This “stem butt” is then put into a pile of woodchips or between layers of moist cardboard. The fungi quickly colonize the substrate, producing mycelium that will, when moved to an appropriate substrate, produce mushrooms.
 

Stamets’ book also describes how to start mushrooms by placing the stem butts into burlap bags of fresh wood chips. He notes that the chips should be free of wild spores, a problem if you just grab chips from a pile of wood chips that has been around for some time.
 

Finally, and this idea really grabs me, Mycelium Running suggest that you can inoculate stumps with plug spawn right after a tree has been cut down. This allows you to produce edible mushrooms in what is otherwise a spot unfit for planting (unless you dig out the stump, which is a lot of work). He inoculates stumps on their tops, into sapwood, in a ring around the periphery. Stamets notes that stumps take longer than logs or wood chips to first produce mushrooms, but produce for years longer.
 

My garden is deep in snow. Sigh. But I could buy a mushroom kit that is ready to produce mushrooms indoors, or spawn that I could use to inoculate logs once the cold of winter has passed.
 

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

 

 

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Mid-Winter Blahs

Posted on Wednesday, February 18, 2015 · Leave a Comment 



I’ve been hearing from friends who are sick of winter. We’re only about half way done with it, but we haven’t had a break – no January thaw this year – and the snow keeps building up. I’ll have to admit that I’m a little tired of shoveling and paying to get my roof cleared. So what can a gardener do? There’s plenty.

 

First, plant something. Nothing makes us gardeners feel better than planting (unless it’s picking peonies, which we can’t do yet). One of my favorite tricks is to sprinkle poppy seeds on the snow above a flower bed. These seeds are tiny and black, and the sun heats them enough to melt through the snow in the course of the winter. And although the germination rate will be low, I save seeds and have plenty. So it doesn’t matter if only a few find a nice crack in the soil and grow, come summer.

 

This weekend I will dig out my potting soil and trays and plant some onion seeds indoors. Onions take a long time to grow, so I like to start seeds in February, or early March at the latest. For a long time I just planted onion sets – dry, diminutive onions that are sold to start new onions. But then I learned that one can buy – or start from seed and then transplant – small green onion plants. I find that these plants are more vigorous.
If you don’t want to go through the trouble of raising your own onion plants, some seed catalogs will sell the plants at the appropriate time – but those are a lot more expensive than doing your own from seed.

Forsythia

Forsythia

And it’s not too early to cut branches for forcing. I have cut forsythia and magnolia branches, and will make a trip on my snowshoes to the wetland where pussywillows grow. All three – and others, like quince and apple – can be made to bloom inside the house. Just cut stems and put them in a vase with water.
Forsythia is, in my view, an old fashioned plant. My grandfather had a huge patch of forsythia growing as an island in the lawn. It separated his old 1860’s farmhouse from the vegetable garden. They grew tall and dense. I don’t know if he planted them when he bought the place in the 1920’s, or if they were already there. I suspect he planted them.
There must have been a dozen forsythia plants or so, planted in a double row about 10 feet apart. By the time I came along they created a secret hiding place in the middle between the two rows. My sister and I would crawl into the interior of the patch and we were totally hidden from adult view. A fine hiding place it was.

 

Grampy lived in Spencer, Massachusetts where winter temperatures probably never went much below zero. But living in the cold north, where we see minus 10 to 25 degrees for night after night, means that when I bought my place in 1970, forsythia was not a good option. Yes, it would survive, but the flower buds would be killed by cold temperatures unless buried by snow. I know, I tried.
Hybridizers kept trying different crosses – hybrids- and finally developed plants good for Zone 4 (with temps as low as minus 30). The late plantsman Paul Joly (here in Cornish, NH) developed one variety, ‘New Hampshire Gold’. Other good ones include ‘Meadowlark’, ‘Vermont Sun’ and ‘Northern Gold’. All those were created just with old fashioned breeding techniques, no genetic engineering.

 

Magnolia bud (with dime for size comparison)

Magnolia bud (with dime for size comparison)

I love cutting magnolia stems for forcing, even though it takes a long time to get the blossoms to open. I love them because the buds are fuzzy and big, sort of like pussywillows on steroids. I have a mature Merrill magnolia that is my favorite tree. It blooms every year on my birthday in late April, it has green glossy leaves all summer, and it has fabulous fuzzy flower buds that I can look at (and that make me smile) all winter. Fabulous plant. If I were sentenced to live in exile on an island and could bring just one tree, it might well be a magnolia (though an apple tree would be in strong competition).
I usually wait until late March to cut apple branches for forcing because that is when I start pruning apple trees. If you want the stems to bloom, you need to pick mature branches, not those young whips called water sprouts. Those straight stems look great in a vase, but will only produce leaves. To get blossoms, you must have fruit spurs, which are 3 to 6 inch branches – spurs – attached to old wood. You will notice fruit buds, which are larger than leaf buds, near the tip of fruit spurs. These will produce a cluster of blossoms, and leaves, too.
Meanwhile, we should all be thankful for all the snow we’ve had. It protects our perennials, the tender ones, from severe temperatures. I once dug down through 4 feet of fluffy snow and probed the soil in my vegetable garden with a thermometer. Just a couple of inches down the soil was 37 degrees. And only the top inch or so was even frozen. Barren winters, with no snow, are much harder on our plants, even if not so cold as this year.
So bundle up, put on your earmuffs and scarf, and go cut some stems and put them in water. Before too long, you’ll have spring in your house – even if it’s still snowing outside.
Henry Homeyer lives in Cornish Flat, NH. He is the author of 4 gardening books and a children’s fantasy-adventure about a boy and a cougar called Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet. His web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com.

 

 

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Winter Planning: What Size Tree to Buy?

Posted on Wednesday, February 11, 2015 · Leave a Comment 



          The snow is deep, the temperatures well below freezing. It’s a good time to think about what projects to undertake this year. My friend Evan Schneider, who was in the Peace Corps with me in Cameroon, recently bought a house in Portland, Oregon. He and his wife are retired and realized that whatever landscaping they do, they don’t want to wait 20 years for a shade tree to actually produce enough shade for the two of them to sit in the shade all afternoon reading good books.

Trees ready to move

Trees ready to move

In general, I buy the smallest tree available, not the largest. I know that a small tree loses a smaller percentage of its roots when it is dug up for transplanting. Or if it has been growing in a plastic tub, I figure the less time it is in that tub, the less time the roots have to encircle the pot and get tangled. So I was surprised that they had purchased a thirty-foot tall maple tree, and had it installed. I visited them recently, and saw that the tree seems to be thriving.

Evan took me to meet the people who had done the job. The company is called Big Trees Today, in Hillsboro OR, and they specialize in growing big trees in the ground, and then digging them up and installing them. Dan Hickman, the owner, is now in his mid-thirties and is selling some trees that he planted when he was in junior high school (and working for his dad).

Dan said they generally buy small, bareroot trees, plant them in the ground, and then move them 3 times before selling them. After a tree is about 2 inches diameter it is dug up and moved. Digging it up means that the roots are severed, which stimulates new roots to grow and to branch out from the older roots. Then when the trunk is about 5 inches in diameter, it is dug up and moved again. Finally at 9 inches in diameter it is moved for the final time before it is sold. Depending on the kind of tree and how fast it grows, it might be root pruned again without digging it up – by digging down and severing roots.

Tree spade

Tree spade

I once moved a crab apple tree for a woman who had planted it when her son was born. She and her family were moving, and wanted to move the tree, even though her son was, by then, twelve years old (I think). I told her I could do it as a two-step process: First, I would cut the roots along a dotted line about two and a half feet from the trunk. I alternated thrusting the shovel deep into the soil and leaving a shovel-width undisturbed. I did that in the fall, I believe, and then moved the tree the next year. When it was time to dig it up, I dug around the tree three feet from the trunk. That way the previously severed roots had been given time to fork out and grow new feeder roots which were largely undisturbed when I moved it.

Most commercial firms that move trees have a special tractor-mounted tool called a tree spade. It is fitted around the tree and several big blades are hydraulically powered to slice deep into the earth creating a root ball that is shaped a bit like a huge ice cream cone (though not as pointy).

Dan Hickman told me that it is important that the root ball not fall apart during the digging, the transporting, or the planting. His firm is located where the soil is high in clay, which helps the root ball stick together, especially if kept moist. But they also wrap the root ball, first in an open wire cage, then in burlap.

I have seen trees with root balls wrapped in synthetic burlap, which must be removed at planting time. I once dug up a tree that was 7 years old and was not growing well, only to find that its roots were encased in burlap that had not broken down. Dan Hickman said the burlap they use disintegrates in 3 to 4 months, and they leave it in place. Only after it is planted do they cut away any burlap they can at the soil surface. Me? I’ve always removed the burlap.

Crater left by tree spade

Crater left by tree spade

I asked Dan what was the biggest tree he ever moved. He told me that they once moved an historic camperdown elm (Ulmus glabra ‘Camperdownii’) that was 106 years old but in the way of an upcoming building project. It had a rootball 16 feet wide and it weighed 73,000 pounds – over 36 tons! He and his crew root pruned it in the spring, and then dug it up and moved it in the fall. It is doing fine.

What else should you know about buying a big tree? Find a company that has plenty of experience. A company that has invested in a tree spade is probably a good bet, though it can be done by hand. Be sure to have the tree planted at the right depth – you will want it to sit with its trunk flare exposed, not buried.

Set up a watering system so that your big tree never gets thirsty. Digging a big tree severs roots, even if it has been root pruned and has a compact root system. A transplanted tree has fewer root hairs to pick up water and minerals. It makes sense to use a timer that will turn on your watering system on a schedule. You can use a soaker hose or an irrigation system with emitters to deliver the water. It will require more water in the heat of August than in the spring or fall, so will have to adjust it accordingly.

Finally, create a “donut” of bark or wood chips around the tree, covering the roots, but not touching the trunk. Mulch will keep down weeds and grass, and keep those dudes with weed whackers away from the trunk. You don’t want the bark damaged, and string trimmers or lawnmowers can be lethal.

So I’ve re-thought my position about planting big trees. I’m not exactly a spring chicken anymore, so if I want to see another mature tree on my property, I’ll consider buying a big tree. And maybe even having an expert – with the right tools – install it.

Henry lives in Cornish Flat, NH and is a UNH Master Gardener. His Web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com. He is the author of 5 books.

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