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Early Spring Chores



                            

Spring finally seems to be coming to Cornish Flat – about a month late, this year. My snowdrops are just starting to bloom and large patches of snow are still on the lawn and garden – though there are bare spots. I really want to get outside and start cleaning up the yard and garden beds, but will try to hold myself back until things have dried out.

 

Why is it important to wait before doing much gardening? It’s all about soil structure. Soil is made up of ground rock, organic matter and air spaces. The mineral component is about 45%, organic matter can be from 1% to 10% or more, and the rest consists of air spaces. That last component is as important as the first two.

 

Plant roots that we can see when we dig up a weed or plant a shrub are only a part of the entire root. The parts of the root that absorbs water, oxygen and minerals are so fine that we cannot see them. They are called root hairs, but they are even finer than human hair, microscopically fine. And there are lots of them. Most plants have branch roots that spread out and branch again and again. Root hairs are short protuberances attached to those branching roots. But fine roots cannot push through packed soil as easily as through fluffy soil. The total length of root tissues in a single rye plant is around 380 miles.   

 

As you know, if you walk on soggy lawn you leave foot prints. That means that you have squeezed air out of the soil and compacted it – making it all the harder for roots and root hairs to extend and thrive. Not only that, green plants get their oxygen from the soil via their roots. If the oxygen is squeezed out, plants can’t get it.

 

So what can a gardener do? Wait. Don’t walk on your lawn if you see footprints or hear a squish. Don’t rake winter debris from the lawn while the lawn is still dormant. If you do, you risk pulling up the grass, roots and all. And stay out of flower beds even later into the spring – they are more susceptible to compaction than your lawn.

 

So what can you do in early April? Clean and sharpen your tools, including the handles. I have a potato hoe, a 5-tined rake-like tool that has been in my family for over 50 years. It has its original wood handle, which is still in perfect condition – even though I use it for weeding and soil prep every week, often every day, all summer. How is that possible? I try to oil the handle every year either in the fall or the early spring. And I don’t leave the tool outside in the sun or rain. No matter how tired I am at the end of the day I walk the potato hoe back to the barn before I go to the house.

 

To clean up a wooden handle, first I use fine steel wool (or a green scrubbie) to polish up the handle and remove any rough spots. Then I apply a coat of boiled linseed oil with a brush or rag. I let it soak in for a few hours, then rub off any excess. Or if the oil soaks right in, I might even apply a second coat. The steel tines I clean with steel wool and apply a light coat of sewing machine oil.

 

This year I need to oil the wood on my wooden wheel barrow and tighten up all the bolts. One of my first memories in my life is of my Grampy picking me up, plunking me down in his wooden wheelbarrow on a pile of weeds, and racing us back to the barn ahead of a fast-approaching thunderstorm. I might have been just two years old. The ride was bumpy – there was a steel-rimmed wooden wheel – but it was exciting!

 

Wooden wheelbarrow Photo Credit: Spring Valley Woodworking

Wooden wheelbarrow
Photo Credit: Spring Valley Woodworking

Unfortunately that wooden wheelbarrow disappeared after Grampy went off to the great garden in the sky. But many years later I tracked down an Amish woodworker in Pennsylvania, Ike Lapp, who still makes wooden wheelbarrows and got myself one. It’s pretty much the same wheelbarrow I remember my grandfather using. When I finished assembling it I pushed it across the lawn for a test drive and it made the same squeak that my grandfather’s wheelbarrow did.

 

I called Ike Lapp at his home in Gordonville, PA recently. He is old order Amish, so does not have a phone in his house or workshop. Instead he has a phone and answering machine in a separate 4-foot square building in a field. (He checks messages once a day and calls customers back. He’s at 717-355-9366717-355-9366). He told me he is still making the wheelbarrows and in addition to mine, a large premium grade wheelbarrow for around $300, he has smaller ones, and some in “rustic grade”. He does not have a web site, but you can see his wheelbarrows at www.lehmans.com.

 

Later, when your ground has dried out and you are raking and weeding flower beds, try to reach in with your rake, keeping your feet out of the beds. If you must walk in flower beds, bring along a couple of short planks. Place them in the flower bed and step on the boards to distribute your weight. Or if you are not worried about what the neighbors will say, you could wear your snowshoes. After the winter we’ve had, that seems appropriate!

 

Henry Homeyer is a gardening consultant and the author of 4 gardening books. His web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com.

 

Spring Pruning



Conventional wisdom has it that fruit trees should be pruned in March, but don’t worry if you haven’t even started yet. I haven’t. There’s no harm in pruning in April, or anytime, really. After the buds on fruit trees open, they are more prone to being knocked off while we work on the trees. But you probably don’t care if you get a few less apples or pears. The snow has been so deep this year that it has been difficult to move ladders around, keeping most of us from starting early.

 

Pruning is best done with clean, sharp equipment. You’ll need a pair of by-pass hand pruners and a sharp tri-cut pruning saw. Bow saws, once popular, are tough to get in tight places, so the folding saw has taken over. A nice pair of loppers will save time sawing medium-sized branches.

 

Before beginning, check your pruners to see if they are sharp. I do that with the backside of a fingernail, which I drag lightly across the cutting blade. It should shave off a little of the nail. (If yours are not sharp, read my description of how to sharpen pruners in my book, Organic Gardening (not just) in the Northeast: A Hands-On, Week-by Week Guide. Your library should have it).

 

Next I clean off any gunk on the blades. I use a special solution called Sap-X with an old green scrubby, but you could use a little sewing machine oil or even kerosene. The blades should open and close easily.

 

Branch collar and line to show where to cut

Branch collar and line to show where to cut

Start working on a tree by studying it for a few minutes. Apples do best with a single leader in the middle and the longest branches near the base, getting shorter going up the trunk. If you have two competing leaders, it would be good to remove one, though in an old tree that might not be practical due to the size.

 

As you look at the tree, ask yourself which larger branches should be removed. Are there any dead branches? They must be removed, so start by taking them out. Are there branches that are rubbing others, or crossing through the middle of the tree? They can go next. Lastly, remove any watersprouts – those smaller branches shooting straight up.

 

Healed cut and new water sprout

Healed cut and new water sprout

Some fruit trees produce dozens – or even hundreds – of water sprouts each year. Although some varieties seem more prone to producing them than others, you can minimize their presence by pruning to create a well-balanced tree that allows sunshine to get to each leaf of the tree. Watersprouts are the tree’s effort to produce more leaves to create more food.

 

Even though it might seem scary, it is better to remove large branches than to nip away at a tree, taking tiny branches. It is more efficient, and makes for a better looking, healthier tree. In any given year you can remove up to a quarter of the tree. That means a quarter of the branches that produce leaves – and hence food for the tree. Taking out a big dead branch doesn’t count at all. A healthy tree allows each leaf to get sunshine. If there are too many branches, they will shade each other out.

 

Stub healing back to branch collar

Stub healing back to branch collar

Where you make your cuts is important, too. Don’t cut off branches flush with the trunk, nor leave long stubs. Branches should be pruned just outside (away from) the wrinkly flare that starts at the trunk or a larger branch. That area you should leave is called the trunk collar. It is the site where healing takes places fastest. Years ago arborists recommended painting tar over a cut, but that is no longer thought to be a good practice.

 

If you have an empty place in your tree and wish you had a branch there, sometimes you can bend down a branch and keep it in place until it will stay put – generally around July 4th. But don’t do that until after the leaves appear. You can attach a weight to a small branch. A plastic soda bottle is good: you can add water until it is just the right weight. Or you can tie a bigger branch down to a stake in the ground.

 

Apples generally are produced on short spurs that occur on scaffold branches that are at a 45 degree angle from the main trunk (or even more horizontal). Branches going straight up are less likely to produce fruit. But don’t be impatient with young trees: they won’t produce fruit until they are good and ready.

 

Pruning on a warm spring day is great fun, and a good excuse to be outside. And remember, trees are not like people: they benefit by having their limbs removed.

 

Henry Homeyer lives in Cornish Flat, NH. His Web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com.

 

 

           

A Winter Meal from the Garden



                   

Technically, spring arrived on March 20. Most years I have snowdrops blooming on a south-facing hillside by early March, and some Glory-of-the-Snow in blossom by now. Not this year. Snow is still deep on my property, and nights with temperatures near zero have been common. Sigh. But I have a few plants started by seed growing under lights, to keep me chipper.

 

Butternut Squash

Butternut Squash

I also continue to eat from my garden. Yes, all those frozen and stored veggies keep me well fed and looking forward to this year’s vegetable garden. One of the best vegetables I grow is the butternut squash, specifically one called ‘Waltham’. It stores well in a cool, dry spot and is full of vitamins and energy. I recently made a butternut and apple soup with one, and it was fabulous. I got the idea from Anne Yates of Anne’s Country Store in Plainfield, NH, which has a great deli. She told me what she did (without any measurements), and I created my own version of it while also trying to use just home-grown veggies.

 

Usually I steam squash to cook it, but Anne said she roasted hers, so I tried that approach. I cut a large butternut in half lengthwise, cleaned out the seeds and lightly oiled the cut surface. I placed it face down on a cookie sheet and roasted at 350 degrees for an hour or more. This caramelized the sugars and made the squash even sweeter than it was. I scooped out the meat from the skin; it yielded about 3 cups of meat.

 

From my freezer I took out a jug of frozen apple cider. I bring apples to my local orchard in the fall, and have them press my apples (for a price) and put the cider in plastic half gallon jugs, which I freeze. I added cider (a quart in total) to the squash meat in my food processor and pureed it in a few batches.

 

Although I do grow fresh ginger in pots, and have some I could have harvested, I had some grocery store ginger that I peeled and chopped for this soup. I prepared a quarter cup of chopped ginger, which I then sautéed with 2 cups of chopped onions at low heat until the onions were clear and somewhat caramelized. After cooking the onions and ginger, I blended them in the processor, and added it to the squash and cider which was simmering on low heat.

 

Next, I cleaned up the last of my carrots from the garden that were starting to look wrinkly and bedraggled in my vegetable drawer. I had about 2 cups of carrots, so that is what I used. Of those, some I added to the soup as rounds, some I blended briefly in the processor. I added a cup of chicken broth at this time, though vegetarians could omit this.

 

Last fall was great for apples, so I froze lots of sliced apples. For this soup I used 4 cups of frozen apple slices with the skins on. I cooked them with a little water in a saucepan until soft, and then blended them into an applesauce-like mixture in the food processor. That produced about 2 cups of applesauce – which you could substitute here if you didn’t have fresh or frozen apples.

 

After I added the applesauce to the soup, I added a light sprinkle of nutmeg and some salt and pepper. And no, I don’t produce or collect the nutmeg, salt or pepper. There is just so much one can do to eat locally.

 

When it comes to growing butternut squash, I like to start seeds in the house a month before it is time to put them in the garden. I say a month because conventional wisdom is that squash family plants (including cukes, pumpkins, and melons) don’t like to have their roots disturbed. An 8-week old squash plant has a big root system and might be stunted or slowed in growth when transplanted into the garden. I plant in June after the soil is plenty warm.

 

The main reason I start squash indoors instead of planting seeds directly in the garden is this: there is a terrible insect pest, the striped cucumber beetle, that loves the tender first leaves of any squash-family plant. They are active at night, and will eat off the first 2 leaves of a young plant, killing it. But a 4-week old plant will have enough leaves to survive being chewed on by a few beetles.

 

You can also cover your seedlings with something called row cover or Reemay. It is a breathable fabric that physically keeps the beetles off the seedlings – unless they come up under it (they live in the soil). But I remove the row cover when the vines blossom – they need insects for pollination.

 

So try making this soup. The ginger gives it quite a kick, but next time I might add some of the hot pepper powder I make each year. And think about growing Waltham butternuts. They take some garden space (I allocate a 5-by 5-ft space for 3 plants) but are very productive – and tasty, too!

 

Henry’s Web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com. He is the author of 4 gardening books and a children’s fantasy-adventure about a boy with a mustache and his sidekick, a cougar.

 

                                          

Vegetables as Art

Posted on Wednesday, March 19, 2014 · Leave a Comment 



                        

I would hazard a guess that if you toured an art museum, the artwork depicting flowers would outnumber the art showing vegetables by ten to one. Or maybe a hundred to one. Flowers? Georgia O’Keefe and her poppies spring to my mind, Monet had his famous paintings of Giverny with its water lilies. Van Gogh had his sunflowers. And so on. But few painters have focused on kohlrabi or lettuce. And why is that? Vegetables are as beautiful as flowers if properly grown and displayed.

 

Bill Chisholm art

Bill Chisholm art

I was recently at the Rhode Island Flower Show and was struck by the artwork of Bill Chisholm of Somerville, Massachusetts (www.billchisholm.com). He had big, bold paintings for sale of vegetables and fruits. I bought a big tomato, a smaller artichoke and a delightful clove of garlic. I hung them in my kitchen, next to the stove. He paints in oil, and then has reproductions printed on canvas using a technique called giclée. The canvas is stretched on wood frames, just like an original, but at a small fraction of the price.

 

Much of my life is devoted to my vegetable gardens in the spring, summer and fall. I start seeds now, indoors. I baby the infants outdoors in May and June. I harvest and process the food much of the summer and all of the fall. So now, in winter, it’s nice to see veggies on the wall – in addition to those in the freezer. My new art got me thinking about the veggies we will plant this summer.

 

 As you plan your garden this year, think about planting veggies in artistic ways. Choose cultivars for color and leaf texture, and plant them as you would if you were planting a flower garden – or creating a painting. Here are some of my favorites;

 

I love lettuces. They come in so many colors and leaf textures. I start lettuce in the house in April and May in 6-packs, each week starting a couple of different varieties. I plant green leaf lettuce, red lettuce, lettuce of multiple hues. In the garden I like to space lettuce six inches apart so that each head reaches full size, and is not crowded. But I like to interplant reds with greens, frilly lettuces with shiny leafed-lettuce. Arugula with Romaine or Oakleaf – and so forth.

 

I get seeds from numerous sources. Renee’s Seeds (www.reneesgarden.com) packages lettuces in pairs or trios of colors. This allows you to create a colorful array of leaf colors with just a package or two. Johnny’s Selected Seeds has an amazing array of lettuce seeds aimed not only at the homeowner, but also the CSA manager and farmer. In their catalog are a few pages showing the diversity of leafs you can work with.

 

 Of the purple-leafed veggies, one of my favorites is orach. This is not a lettuce at all, but a relative of the amaranths, and is sometimes called “summer spinach”. It doesn’t bolt the way spinach does, and can get to be 3-4 feet tall. It will self sow if you let it – I allow a few plants to get big and make seeds, and it comes back each year in my garden. I use if in salads, but I’ve read that it is also good as a cooked green. Available from Johnny’s Seeds.

 

Other gorgeous vegetables include purple kohlrabi, eggplants, artichokes, and cauliflower. Visitors to my garden look at kohlrabi and seem to ask the same question: “What is that? A space alien?” The plant is fat globe that sits on the soil surface and sends up “arms” from the bulb, with leaves on top the arms.

 

For sheer production value, you can’t beat a variety of kohlrabi called ‘Kossak’ from Johnny’s Seeds, which produces globes bigger than softballs. But the purple-skinned ones, while smaller, are my favorites for their beauty. Renee’s Seeds sells a package of mixed purple and green varieties. I chop up kohlrabi and use it is salads and stir fries. It’s crisp and mild flavored, with a bit of a cabbage taste. They are fast-growing and should be started by seed in the garden.

 

Cauliflowers can be gorgeous, too. I have grown a purple cauliflower variety but have to admit that, like most cauliflowers, it is awfully fussy. If the soil is too wet or too dry, the plants get big but don’t produce anything but little buttons – not the big heads you see in the grocery store – or want to eat. And the purple color fades away on cooking.

 

Artichoke Sculpture

Artichoke Sculpture

Artichokes are beautiful plants, but take a long time to grow. In California they are perennials, but not here. This year I started a few seeds in January, but little plants are sometimes sold at good garden centers if you haven’t started any yet. I grow a couple of plants each year mainly for their looks and get a few artichokes to eat, but they are quite small. Some years ago I visited the Giant Artichoke Restaurant in Castroville, CA. It had a sculpture of an artichoke that towered over me that I remember fondly – too bad I can’t have one like it in my garden.

 

So as we move towards spring, think about the art value of your veggies and create your own living artwork. Tasty can be tasteful and pretty, too.

 

In addition to writing, Henry Homeyer teaches pruning to homeowners. He can be reached at henry.homeyer@comcast.net. He lives in Cornish Flat, NH.

 

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The Irish Gardener

Posted on Wednesday, March 12, 2014 · Leave a Comment 



 

My great-grandmother took the boat from Ireland to Boston in the latter part of the 1800’s.  Dobbie, as we called her, got a job as a cook at Wellesley College. That was a bit ironic because she was, in my memory, a wonderful person but a horrible cook. She never made me anything that I can recall eating with pleasure. Even her boiled eggs – usually a favorite of mine- were runny and disgusting.

 

Kale

Kale

So, despite the fact that I am one quarter Irish, for a long time I never paid much attention to Irish food. Not so any more. With St Paddy’s day just around the corner, I will soon be cooking up a big pot of colcannon, one of the great comfort foods of all time. It’s a wonderful combination of potatoes and kale – foods that I still have from last summer’s garden.

 

As a gardener and a chef I appreciate the value of potatoes, especially potatoes from my own garden. Potatoes come in as many colors and flavors as tomatoes. I grow potatoes with flesh that is white, yellow, pink and purple. I store and save potatoes, and once I went about 20 years without buying a potato to eat or plant. I just started this year’s planting with last year’s potatoes and I stopped eating potatoes when I ran out – until the next crop came in.

 

But back to colcannon. It is a potato dish I always eat on St. Patrick’s Day. It is easy to make and tasty to eat. I generally use a white potato such as the Kennebec, which is also my most productive variety. One chunk of potato planted can yield up to 5 pounds of potatoes.! They grow big and are great for mashing. The other main vegetable in colcannon is kale, which I grow in quantity and freeze for winter use. I like a variety called Winterbor which is readily available by seed or as seedlings at your local garden center. Here’s how to make a nice Irish side dish:

 

Ingredients:

2-3lbs of white potatoes                                                                                              

5-6 Tablespoons butter                                                                                               

3 cups kale, fresh or frozen, chopped finely & lightly packed in a measuring cup                                                                       

½ cup onion finely chopped, or 3 green onions (including the greens)                      

1 cup whole milk or light cream

 

Method:

  1. Peel and boil the potatoes until they will fall apart when poked with a fork.
    Drain.
  2. Sauté onions and kale in the butter in a heavy pot on medium heat for 3 to 5 minutes.
  3. Add potatoes, stir.
  4. Add the milk (or cream for sheer decadence) and mash well using an old fashioned potato masher, not an electric mixer.
  5. Add salt and pepper as desired.

 

But on with the Irish theme. The rest of the meal should be Guinness stew, but that’s not from my garden, so you’re on your own for that. But as a centerpiece on St Patrick’s Day there should be a plant that screams “Irish”. The shamrock? The true Irish shamrock is a type of clover (Trifolium dubium) that is very hard to grow indoors and is rarely available even from florists and nurseries. What you can grow as a house plant is a type of wood sorrel commonly called oxalis. It looks like the Hallmark version of a shamrock.

 

Oxalis with flowers

Oxalis with flowers

Oxalis is a nice house plant that comes in green and maroon-leafed varieties – though for St Patrick’s Day green is the proper selection. There are some 300 species of oxalis. Mine do well in a bright window – I have 2 of the maroon-leafed ones in bloom right now. In the summer they thrive on my somewhat shady deck. The light pink flowers are small and reach up above the leaves on thin stems. The leaves fold up at night time.

 

One of the great things about oxalis is that it is nearly impossible to kill by under-watering it. The leaves may shrivel up and die off, but if this happens, just give it a rest –which I have read it likes – and it will bounce back when you start watering it a few weeks later.

 

If you have an oxalis, you can divide it easily by separating the corms (the thickened roots) and planting pieces of them in new pots with fresh planting medium. Like most houseplants, oxalis does not do well if the roots stay constantly wet. I have planted mine in potting soil enriched with compost. I find a 50-50 mix is good. I have learned to judge dryness of the soil by lifting the pot. The surface may look dry, but if the pot is heavy there is still plenty of moisture down below.

 

Whether you have some Irish in you or not, grow potatoes and kale this year. Both are supremely easy. But it’s too cold to think about that now – except as ingredients in colcannon. Bon appétit!

 

Henry Homeyer is the author of 4 gardening books and a children’s fantasy-adventure about a boy and a cougar. His Web site is www.Gardening-guy.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Growing Your Own Fruit

Posted on Wednesday, March 5, 2014 · Leave a Comment 



 

Most mornings in winter I start my day with a bowl of oatmeal. That can get pretty dull, so I liven it up with a variety of fruits, most of which I grew myself and preserved either dried or frozen. Add some cinnamon or cardamom and a few nuts, and bland becomes bodacious. In my freezer I have blueberries, elderberries, blackberries, plums, apples, raspberries and a few peaches that I got by trading some apples with a friend. So if you’re bored with breakfast, do some studying now about the various fruits you might grow, and plant them this summer.

 

Much of what I know about gardening comes from practical experience: ask a good gardener, for example, what kind of peach tree she grows, plant one, and see how it does. Try again if the first one dies. But I also depend on reading good books on gardening, and now, while there is still snow on the ground, I spend considerable time reading.

 

I have two books on fruit growing that I like a lot. The first, written in 1992 by Lewis Hill of Greensboro, Vermont, is a classic: Fruits and Berries for the Home Garden. Lewis was a friend of mine (he passed away in 2008) and a Vermonter to the core: quick –witted, hardworking, and curious. He grew up on a dairy farm and only had a high school education, but with his wife Nancy, he wrote 16 excellent gardening books. His book on fruits and berries is full of good information but also entertaining. It has recently been updated, I just learned, by University of Vermont professor Len Perry as The Fruit Grower’s Bible.

 

The other fruit book I like is Lee Reich’s Grow Fruit Naturally: A Hands-On Guide to Luscious, Homegrown Fruit, which came out in 2012 and is full of color illustrations and good drawings. Like Hill, Lee Reich is opinionated, thorough, and has many years of experience. Lee has a PhD in horticulture and lives in upstate New York.

 

Medlar

Medlar

Reich’s book introduced me to two fruits hardy for Zone 5 (possibly even Zone 4) that I have never grown or tasted: the medlar and the shipova. The medlar is a small tree that is self-fruitful, meaning that one tree is all that is needed for pollination. According to Reich’s book, the medlar blossoms open late enough to almost never be bothered by spring frosts. The fruit keeps well and is very tasty. So why have I never heard of one? Reich writes, “The flesh, when ready for eating, is brown and mushy and lacking visual appeal.” It also needs “bletting” or ripening on a shelf in a cool room, the cooler the better.

 

Shipova

Shipova

The Shipova is actually a hybrid made from two different species, a type of mountain ash (Sorbus aria) and the European pear. Reich lists it as a Zone 4 plant, so it is hardier than the medlar and should survive my New Hampshire winters easily. It produces pear-like fruit on a tree that can grow to 20 feet, or if grafted on a suitable rootstock, only 8 feet tall. He says that are ready for harvest in mid-summer. Unlike the medlar, the fruit does not keep well – but it is attractive to the eye and tasty, too. I called Lee, and he said the fruit tastes similar to a pear.

 

Reich made it clear that fruits like the medlar and shipova are not often sold at our local nurseries, so I went on-line to see where they are available. Raintree Nursery in Morton, Washington (http://www.raintreenursery.com) had both for sale. In the back of Reich’s book there is a list of nurseries that sell fruit trees, including St Lawrence Nurseries in Potsdam, NY which has lots of cold hardy trees that can be ordered bare root until April 10.

 

Lee Reich’s book is just chockfull of tidbits that are useful. He explains, for example, labels on pesticides: ‘caution’ means the material is slightly toxic or relatively nontoxic. ‘Warning’ means moderate toxicity, and material marked ‘danger’ might kill you – even in small quantities. Lee is a proponent of organic techniques, but points out that even pesticides approved for organic growers can have severe side effects. He notes that nicotine sulfate is an extract of tobacco that is “organic” but has a danger label. It’s important to pay attention to warning labels whether you are using organic pesticides or not.

 

I also like the fact that Reich’s Grow Fruit Naturally has specific cultivars named for the fruits it describes, and offers useful tips such as whether a variety is self-fruitful or not. There is a nice section on pruning and another on proper planting techniques.

 

Call me a skeptic, but I like to buy trees from local nurseries as it means that the owners probably have grown what they are selling. Still … I love to experiment with new plants, and usually try something new every year. This just might be the year for a shipova or a medlar. I wonder how they are on breakfast cereal?

 

Henry Homeyer can be reached at henry.homeyer@comcast.net or by writing him at P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746.

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Enjoying the Winter Landscape

Posted on Wednesday, February 19, 2014 · Leave a Comment 



 

          I like winter. I like the special quality of winter light in the late afternoon, those purples and blues that were perfectly captured by artist Maxfield Parish. But most of all, I like passing through the woods on skis when the sun is bright. The snow sparkles the way diamonds might, if scattered on a Mediterranean beach.

 

 

          I visit the woods in winter for the same reason that I go to museums: for the sheer beauty on display. There is something uplifting about great works of art – or great works of nature. I don’t need to go to the Grand Canyon to feel awe; I can enjoy the woods near home just as much.  Part of the joy for me is going slowly enough to see what’s there, and taking time to appreciate the details.

 

 

          As I approach my favorite woods, stolid maples wait patiently along the lane, old and venerable. They will share their sweet nectar in another month or two but for now they stand silently, motionless, waiting.

 

 

          In the forest, young hemlocks bend under the weight of snow, their long arms reaching to the ground for stability, green fingers disappearing into the snow. Going through glades of mature hemlocks or pines, their branches reaching out high above me, is almost like visiting a great cathedral. I like the wisps of snow that blow off their branches – snow smoke I call it – even if some goes down my neck.

 

 

          Teenage beeches are the glamour stars of the woods, their bark smooth, gray and unblemished. Young beeches often hold their dry brown leaves until May, and they rustle when I jostle them. But the old beeches seem somber, even sad, and somehow remind me of elephants. They are stolid, unmoving, their grey legs showing wrinkles and scars.

 

 

          I don’t always have time or the energy to go for a long cross-country skiing adventure. Sometimes I just strap on my snowshoes and go to my garden to look at the silhouettes of trees and shrubs.

 

 

Magnolia Flower Bud

Magnolia Flower Bud

One of my favorites is my Merrill magnolia. I planted it some 15 or 20 years ago as a specimen tree in the middle of a mowed lawn. Now it is near maturity: 25 or 30 feet tall with a “wing span” of 20 feet. It has multiple stems, as many magnolia do, and smooth gray bark. The branches are loaded with large, fuzzy flower buds. These buds are bigger and better than pussy willow blossoms, and they bring joy not only for their looks now, but also for the image of what the blossoms will look like: 3-inch double white flowers that are lightly fragrant. The tree almost always blooms for me on April 23, my birthday.

 

 

Twisted Hazelnut

Twisted Hazelnut

I love the curlicue form of purple-leafed, twisted hazelnut (also called Harry Lauder’s walking stick). It is a very interesting silhouette against the snow, and come spring it will produce lovely, glossy purplish leaves. Later in the summer the leaves will lose some of their purple hue and appear more green. 

 

 

          My apple trees can be a joy to look at, too. Proper pruning of apple trees can turn them into works of art. The key is to get rid of the clutter that apple trees seem determined to grow. Annual pruning to get rid of those vertical twigs called “water sprouts” makes a big difference. I tell people that a bird should be able to fly through an apple tree and not get hurt. I once found the skeleton of a bird in an unpruned apple tree, but don’t know for sure how it met its demise. I’ll start pruning in March, once the snow has melted enough to move around the trees easily.

 

 

          A native tree that has a great profile is the pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia). It grows branches well separated, so they remind me of person doing Tai chi, holding arms in frozen poses. I have one that grew out of the face of a retaining wall as a ‘volunteer’. Although I snipped it off when young, the roots sent a new shoot, and I let it grow. Now it is a favorite of mine in winter.

 

 

 

Arctic Blue Willow

Arctic Blue Willow

My arctic blue willow looks great now, too. It is a ‘nana’ or small variety, and has hundreds of thin twigs growing vertically and very close together. Earlier in the winter it was severely bent over by an ice storm, but I shook the branches free of ice and snow, and now it is back in fine form. The 16 inches of fine snow we got recently sifted through the branches this time, giving it a great silhouette.

 

 

          So go outside and really look at the “bones” of your garden on a snowy day. And if you don’t find much to look at, make plans to buy and plant some nice trees and shrubs, come spring.

 

 

Correction: A kindly soils professor e-mailed me about a recent article in which I said wood ashes could be used to substitute for limestone. He noted that trees can pick up lead and cadmium, particularly near roads, so wood ashes are not good to use in the garden. He also said they act so quickly that your soil may become too alkaline and inhospitable to soil microorganisms. 

 

 

Henry Homeyer teaches pruning and general gardening. His web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com. He is the author of 4 gardening books.

 

 

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No Green Thumbs!

Posted on Wednesday, February 12, 2014 · Leave a Comment 



 

          I’ve been accused of having a green thumb. I don’t. But I can understand why someone might think so. I have lots of successful flowers, shrubs, trees and vegetables growing on my property every year. But I’m willing to bet that I’ve killed more plants than that guy who claims to have a “brown thumb”.  I take chances, buying and trying perennials that are outside their normal climatic zone. I try plants that are persnickety, and then try them again after I kill the first ones.

 

Showy Ladyslipper

Showy Ladyslipper

The late author and illustrator Tasha Tudor, a great gardener who lived in southern Vermont, told me once that she buys at least three pots of any new perennial, and then tries them out in different places on her property to see where they do the best. Often she would buy seven or more pots of the same plant. She tried them in places that had more sun, or less. More natural moisture or less. Like me, I bet she tried different amounts of soil additives for the same kind of plant – more compost, more peat moss or limestone, or more sand, for example.

 

          So what makes a successful gardener? Getting the right soil for each plant. Soil is the key to gardening success. This is a good time, in mid-winter, to pause and learn about soils and to think what you might do, come spring.

 

          There are three basic types of soil; sandy soil, loam and heavy clay soils. Most plants prefer, according to the gardening literature, “Moist, rich, well drained soil.” So how do you get that? It takes time and effort.

 

Himalayan Blue poppy

Himalayan Blue poppy

The soil most plants want has a mixture of particle sizes: small (clay), medium (loam) and large (sand). Very small particles pack together tightly and hold water with their electromagnetic charges. Clay soils do not drain well – they act like a bowl of baking flour. Sandy soils drain too well – like a wire basket full of golf balls. A good soil has some tiny particles, along with larger ones that provide good drainage.

 

If you have a clay soil, you cannot just add sand. Clay mixed with sand makes a soil that acts like like concrete. Similarly, if you have sandy soil that doesn’t easily hold water, you cannot just add lots of clay. The key ingredients for either soil are compost and other kinds of organic matter such as chopped leaves, peat moss or coir (coconut fiber). Adding compost is, in my opinion, always a good thing.

 

The great thing about compost is that it adds water-retention abilities (think of it as containing lots of little sponges) as well as living organisms that work well with your plants. But compost adds air spaces, too, so water can drain better in clay soils if you add lots of compost.

 

Plants thrive in soils that are biologically active: soils that are full of beneficial fungi, bacteria, protozoa. I read once that a teaspoon of healthy soil can contain 5 billion bacteria, 20 million filamentous fungi and a million protozoa. We tend to think of fungi and bacteria as bad: you may think of  fungi as the mildews and molds on leaves. Our mothers told us often to wash our hands to keep bacteria out of our mouths. But in the soil there are many more good bacteria and fungi than bad ones.

 

Chemicals added to your lawn or garden may inhibit the growth and viability of those beneficial microorganisms. Most chemical fertilizers are composed of salts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Salts dry out living tissue and can easily kill microorganisms. Too much fertilizer can dry out and kill root hairs of your precious plants, too.  Farmers talk of fertilizer “burning” the roots of young transplants. That means drying out the root hairs, killing them.

 

What else can you add to your soil to help it along? Here in the Northeast our rain is somewhat acidic, and that acid dissolves some minerals and washes them away. Plants need calcium and magnesium, both of which wash away in spring rains. You can buy a 50-pound bag of limestone and apply it in small quantities to your lawn and garden. If you get your soil tested, it should give a recommendation for how many pounds of limestone are needed for every hundred square feet of garden.

 

Please note: there are two kinds of limestone – dolmitic which contains magnesium, and calcitic, which does not. A soil test will tell you which kind to buy. Or, if you are on a budget and have a woodstove, you use wood ashes instead of limestone. Wood ashes are finer than limestone in a bag, so it is incorporated into the soil more quickly. Use wood ashes at the same rate as you would limestone that you purchased.

 

When the snow goes and the soil thaws, get a soil sample and send it off to your State Extension testing service. It can tell you what might be missing from your soil, the soil acidity, soil type and amount of organic matter. The more you know, the better your plants will grow!

 

Henry Homeyer is a gardening educator and lecturer with a specialty in organic gardening. His web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com.

 

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Spring Flower Shows

Posted on Wednesday, February 5, 2014 · Leave a Comment 



 

          I’m not a big fan of the movies, but I remember a film from the 1960’s that opened with people trudging across a snow-swept plain somewhere in Russia wearing large fur hats and cumbersome boots. Doctor Zhivago, perhaps?  Sometimes it seems that we’re all in that movie. If you’re finding winter dreary, you need to go to one of the many Spring Flower Shows – or maybe all of them.

 

The first flower show each year is the New Hampshire Orchid Society, this year on February 14-16. It is just orchids. Orchids of all kinds, and paraphernalia for orchid growers.  Adults are $10, seniors $6, kids under 12 are free. It’s at the Radisson Hotel in Nashua. For info: www.nhorchids.org.

 

 

Rhode Island Flower Show

Rhode Island Flower Show

The first big shows are the weekend of February 20-23 with shows in Providence, RI and Hartford, CT. They are both excellent, and worth a visit. They’ll have flowering trees and luscious flowers, a multitude of vendors selling everything from bulbs and cut flowers to books and vases, and of course, educational lectures.  The Providence Show has always been one of my favorites. (Full disclosure: I am lecturing Friday and Saturday at the Show in Providence).

 

This year the Providence Show is including vintage cars in the garden displays. I phoned Chuck Carberry, one of the show’s organizers, who told me that each major exhibit will include an antique or vintage car – from a Model A Ford in a Great Gatsby-themed garden to a ‘70’s Ferrari in an Italian grotto garden.  Not only that, the show will feature an old time drive-in theater!

 

Rhode Island Flower SHow

Rhode Island Flower SHow

Each year at Providence I love the sand sculpture – castles big enough for children or gnomes – and this year, given the car theme, they are going to have an old fashioned “woodie” made of sand. The sculptors work on their creations during much of the show, so you can see how they do what they do. The same is true of the designers of the various flower exhibits – they are there to answer questions, which is nice. For info go to: www.flowershow.com

 

The Hartford show is held at the Connecticut Convention Center, which is a great space for such a big show – handy to the interstate, plenty of parking. They pride themselves on their seminars – 12 per day, Friday to Sunday. The Federated Garden Clubs have a big space on the show floor, allowing individual exhibitors to show off their house plants, cactus and arrangements. Tickets are $16, and unlike most shows, they accept cash only!  So fill your wallet before you go. Info: www.ctflowershow.com.

 

The Philadelphia Flower Show is March 1-9. It is the original flower show (having started in 1829) and certainly the biggest and most expensive. Daily tickets are $27 and they sell a VIP all access ticket for $125! But you have to attend at least once in your life. Go during the week when crowds are less, if you can. For info: http://theflowershow.com/ I love this show for its sheer size and diversity. And there are lots of exhibits by ordinary gardeners, which I like.

 

The Portland, Maine Flower Show is March 6-9 at the Portland Company Complex on Fore St, downtown. Tickets cost $13 in advance. Info: http://portlandcompany.com. This year’s theme is Storybook Gardens.

 

The Boston Flower Show is another extravaganza. This year, designers have been asked to. “create a small freestanding  garden inspired by a scene of romance or seduction from a specific, named piece of literature, a movie or a popular song”. It’s being held March 12-16 at the Seaport World Trade Center. Tickets are $20 – and worth it! For info: www.bostonflowershow.com. Get there at opening time (10am during the week, 9am on the weekend) before the crowds get too big.

 

 

After Boston comes The Seacoast Home and Garden Show in Durham, NH on March 29-30. A nice small show with 220 vendors and a reasonable fee to get in – tickets are only $8. Info: www.NewEnglandExpos.com.

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Winter Reading

Posted on Wednesday, January 29, 2014 · Leave a Comment 



 

          Going cross country skiing is generally my way of keeping cheery during long, cold winters. We started off the winter with plenty of snow, but lost most of it in January rains, and recently we’ve just had cold weather. It would be pretty easy for me to get the blues under these conditions, so I’ve been looking for ways to keep myself cheerful. One of the ways I do that is by learning about new plants, and dreaming of growing them once winter has ebbed.

 

          Even though it came out in 2011, I only recently got my own copy of Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees & Shrubs. It’s 950 pages of information about 3700 species of woody plants – with more than 3500 good color photos. I have decided to read it cover to cover by April, though I am skimming the parts about plants for Zones 7 to 9. And since I own it, I am underlining and highlighting relevant info about plants that I want to try. I’d like to share a few of my ideas for purchases with you.

 

I’ve filled up most of my sunny places, so things that do well and bloom in shade are of interest to me. In the back of the book are lists of plants that do well in various conditions. It lists 225 plants that do well in shade (though some are outside our climatic zone).

 

Bottlebrush buckeye, photo by Michael Dirr

Bottlebrush buckeye, photo by Michael Dirr

First on my list of shade lovers to buy is bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora). Dirr calls it “truly one of the best native shrubs for late-spring and early summer”. It is hardy to Zone 4 and “flowers almost as prolifically in shade as in sun.” The blossoms are 8 to 12 inch long, bottlebrush-shaped white inflorescences similar to those on horse chestnut trees– they are ‘cousins’ in the same genus. But it is an understory plant, growing to be just 8 to 12 feet high and 8 to 15 feet wide. And although it likes moist, well-drained soils best, it will grow almost anywhere.

 

          Next, for both the bark and the blooms, I want to buy a Japanese clethra (Clethra barbinervis). It is a Zone 5 plant (good to minus 20) that requires shade and moisture-retentive soil for success. I have plenty of moist, shady areas near my stream that would easily harbor a 10 to 20 foot-tall shrub or small tree. The small blossoms are displayed in hanging panicles in July and August – a time when few other shrubs are blooming. The bark is exfoliating (it peels, exposing different colors of bark), which means it will be interesting to look at in winter.

 

Japanese clethera, photo by Michael Dirr

Japanese clethera, photo by Michael Dirr

I’ve always Franklinia (Franklinia alatamaha) for its bark which has interesting vertical fissures and for its 3-inch fragrant white blossoms in July and August. It will grow in shade and likes moist, well-drained soils. But Dirr warns that poorly drained soils generally prove fatal. It is a shrub or small tree, 10 to 20 feet high and 6 to 15 feet wide.

 

Franklinia was originally found in 1770 in Georgia, named after Ben Franklin, and disappeared from the wild by 1790. It is, according to Dirr, “a somewhat persnickety landscape plant.” Does that deter me? Well it has so far, but now that USDA has reclassified my area as Zone 5, and Dirr says this is a Zone 5 plant, maybe I should try it. I have not seen it succeed in New Hampshire or Vermont, which should warn me not to spend too much on my experiment. If you have grown it, please let me know how it did, and where you grew it.

 

Another tree that interests me is paw-paw (Asimina triloba). This is a small understory tree that produces edible fruit with a somewhat tropical flavor – a bit like bananas. I have only seen – and tasted – it in the Athens, Ohio area but Dirr says it is hardy to Zone 5. It does well in moist, well-drained soils in shade to full sun. Dirr says it will sucker (send out roots from the mother plant) so that it creates colonies. I have never seen the flowers, but he describes them as “lurid purple flowers that creep out of hairy brown buds before the leaves come out in April or May”.

 

Why is it that we see so few of these more unusual shrubs and trees? It may be that nurseries are unwilling to try things that no one has ever heard of. Or it may be that some growers have tried them, and the plants did not do well. Soil type (sandy, loam or clay) and soil pH (level of acidity) are important, but so are microorganisms. It may be that the bacteria and fungi in the soil along a stream bank in Ohio are very different than along my own stream.

 

My grandfather, John Lenat (1885 to 1967), was not an educated man, but a wise one who was an organic gardener long before it was fashionable. He told my sister once, “When you transplant something, bring along enough soil so that it will remember where it came from.”  What he was saying, I think, is that you should bring along enough soil to inoculate your soil with the microorganisms from the site where it thrived.

 

Professor Dirr’s book is fun reading, too. He is opinionated and comes out with occasional wild statements – “with the right amount of imagination they (the flowers of Colutea arborescens) conjure visions of Yosemite Sam”, for example. So get your library to order a copy – or order your own.

 

Henry’s website is www.Gardening-Guy.com. He is the author of 4 gardening books. 

 

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