I recently visited an old college friend in Seattle, Washington and while out there we went to some nice gardens in the area. The Bloedel Reserve is on Bainbridge Island, a 30 minute ferry ride from downtown Seattle. It is a private 150-acre estate that was once the summer home and gardens of a wealthy Seattle family. The founder’s vision was “to provide refreshment and tranquility in the presence of natural beauty,”; the Reserve’s mission is to “enrich people’s lives through a premier public garden of natural and designed Pacific Northwest landscapes.”In my opinion, it meets its goals well.
The best part of the Bloedel Reserve, for me, is the Japanese garden. I have visited several Japanese gardens, and this one is a fine example of the style. It includes a tea house, a dry garden, a small flowing brook that enters a nice pond, large stones, lovely trees and flowers in season. Although I don’t aspire to create a Japanese garden, I recognize that many of the elements that are so attractive in a Japanese garden can be utilized in my own garden – or perhaps yours.
On the surface, at least, the easiest part of the Japanese garden is the dry garden, also called the flat garden or hira-niwa. Generally in Japanese gardens this is a space without vegetation: raked sand or fine gravel that is interspersed with stones of various sizes and shapes. To me, the fine gravel represents the sea and the large stones in it, islands. Some Japanese gardens include trees on islands in the dry garden, but this one did not. At Bloedel Reserve, the shape of the dry garden was rectangular, though I have to say I prefer the curves of others I have seen – they seem more natural. It is traditional to rake the sand or gravel regularly to create interesting patterns in it.
If I were to create a dry garden, I would certainly install a weed barrier beneath the gravel. I wouldn’t use plain black plastic – as effective as it is in keeping out weeds – as it would hold water. There are a variety of woven weed barriers that allow moisture to pass through, although some grasses and weeds can send roots through them. It’s important to have the dry garden flat.
It would be essential to have some kind of edging to keep grasses from creeping into the dry garden. Plastic edging exists in various forms – rolls, sections that interlock – but I have never found them easy to install or very effective at keeping out grasses. I like the “professional” edging made of steel or aluminum that comes in 10-foot sections and is held in place with metal pegs. It generally comes with a black painted surface. It is quite flexible, allowing one to create smooth curves, and can be installed using an edging tool or spade to cut through sod. Stone pavers would also work nicely.
Traditionally there is a tea house that overlooks the dry garden, and Bloedel was no exception. This is a place to sit and reflect on the tranquility of the gardens. The tea house has large glass panels on the side facing the dry garden, which create a visual frame for the dry garden from inside.
There are also benches throughout the gardens where one can sit and observe or ponder the state of the world. I think sitting places are important for any garden, the more comfortable the better. I have two stone benches in my gardens, but rarely sit on them for long – the stone is hard and often cold. But wooden ones, or wooden chairs, are more comfortable. And now days brightly colored Adirondack chairs in recycled plastic are not only comfortable, they are inexpensive – but not very Japanese.
Water is an important element of a Japanese garden, and traditionally they have both streams and ponds. The technology exists to create re-circulating streams and waterfalls, or to install a nice small plastic-lined pool. Goldfish or koi are an important element to small manmade pools, as they help to keep the water clean. At Bloedel a dry stream was created using stones “flowing” down a hillside.
The vegetation of any Japanese garden is important, too. Japanese red maples (Acer palmatum), rhododendrons, cherry trees and various evergreens, (particularly weeping evergreens) are commonly used for vertical elements. Weeping red maples stay small and can be very effective in Japanese gardens, but often are not hardy in Zones 3 and 4.
At Bloedel the perennial plants were largely dormant in late November, but I recognized the leaves of hellebores, decorative grasses, ferns, mosses and groundcovers.
It’s good, I think, to dream of garden projects, especially in these dark days of December. And who knows? Maybe I’ll decide to create a small Japanese garden next summer – but if you do, let me know as I’d love to visit it.
When I was a boy I believed in Santa Claus long after most other kids had given up on him. I must have been in fifth grade before I started to doubt the story of the jolly old elf. I’m not sure if that was due to my own personality, or because my parents and older sister deluded me. Or maybe I was just plain dumb, back then. But now, as the holidays approach, I try to choose gifts that only the real Santa would know are perfect. For gardeners, it’s easy.
Every Gardener needs some basics: a good weeding tool, a pair of hand pruners and a transplant shovel. For me, the weeding tool is a no-brainer: virtually anyone who has tried a CobraHead weeder (www.CobraHead.com) agrees that it is perfect. It’s precise, light-weight and is fabulous at teasing out long roots. Curved like the tine of an old-fashioned horse-drawn cultivator, I think of it as a steel finger. Available at good gardener centers everywhere, or from the company on-line for less than $25. And it will last forever.
Pruners and loppers are great gifts, too. Most of us –by my age at least – tend to misplace pruners, so even if your loved one has a pair, a second is always a great gift. And they get dull, so a new pair of sharp ones is a treat. Don’t go to a big box store and buy the cheapest you can. Buy quality pruners even though they can cost in excess of $50. The two brands I like are Bahco and Felco. Both are excellent. They come in different sizes for different size hands, so talk to a knowledgeable sales person. I personally do not like those with rotating grips that allegedly prevent carpal tunal.
I’ve had a pair of loppers made by Fiskars for at least 10 years that still work great – I use them a lot, even on large diameter branches. They are geared, so they don’t take great strength to use – and they never get “sprung” the way so many loppers do. Mine is the PowerGear 32” lopper, rated to cut branches up to 2 inches in diameter. Available locally for a little under $50. They also come in smaller sizes. All are lightweight and of good quality steel.
Transplant shovels are often overlooked by gardeners, but they do a much better job at moving plants than an ordinary shovel, so everyone should have one. I got mine at my local hardware store –LaValleys – where it is called a drain spade. Not sure why. The blade is long and narrow – 15 inches long and just 6 inches wide. I like the long blade for getting under the middle of a perennial and prying the plant loose after a few judicious probes. At less than $20, even Santas on a budget would approve.
At the lower end of the cost spectrum are plants. I don’t advocate giving anyone a house plant -that’s too much like giving a puppy. Most gardeners have enough –nay, too many – house plants. But an amaryllis bulb is a good gift. They bloom, and then you can either throw it away or hold on to it and coax it to bloom another year (though that’s often more trouble than it’s worth). Prices range from grocery store amaryllis under $8 to fancy ones already potted up and ready to bloom at a florist shop for $15 or more. The bigger the bulb, the more expensive – and the bigger and more dramatic the blossoms.
Also around $10 would be a small bottle of Super Thrive. This is a seaweed and plant hormone extract that is great for helping stressed plants. And right now, many house plants are stressed due to the short days and lack of light. I find it helps them, and I also use it on transplants in the spring. Available locally.
A good blank book with quality paper is a nice gift if your loved one likes record keeping. It’s great to be able to look back, 5years later, and know the name of the variety of bulbs or daylilies you planted. Such a book is also good for sketches of the garden.
On the other end of the cost scale would be a nice dehydrator. I wrote recently about the Excalibur 9-tray dryer for fruits and veggies (www.excaliburdehydrator.com). It’s about a $300 present, so think of it as an investment: it’s an energy–efficient dryer for your tomatoes and apples and more.
Books are excellent presents, too. Santa, are you listening? I want Michael Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs. I know it’s expensive ($79.95), Santa, but it has 952 pages and 3530 color photos. It’s the new bible for woody plants by my favorite, highly opinionated tree expert. He even wrote a nice blurb for the back jacket of my last gardening book (Organic Gardening (not just) in the Northeast, A Hands-on, Month-by-Month Guide -just $17.50 in paper). And if you want us to keep on believing, we have to get the goodies. And I’ve been good this year!
Henry, a.k.a. Santa’s Helper, can be reached at the North Pole, P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746 or email@example.com. Like Santa, he makes no promises except for his gardening book, which he can send you signed and personalized.
We had a cool, wet summer this year, and tomatoes were a disappointment. If you read this column regularly, you may know that my zucchinis were a bust. I did get some cukes, but like most gardeners, I didn’t have big yields – not enough to bother making pickles. Pumpkins ? Zippo. It would be easy to focus on those failures, but instead I want to share my successes – and hope you had some, too.
After a 15 year hiatus, I grew sweet potatoes this summer, and they were wonderful! Easy, productive and tasty! What more could a gardener want? When I tried them once before, I did not get much production, so I asked an expert before starting over. I called Geo Honninger of Hurricane Flats Farm in South Royalton, VT. Geo is an organic gardener who does real well with sweet potatoes and sells them at various farmers markets in my region.
Geo said that sweet potatoes love rich soil, plenty of moisture, and most of all, heat. To do that in this climate takes some extra effort. He advised me to grow them in mounded raised beds (my normal way of planting) and to cover the beds with black plastic (which is not something I would normally do). The plastic absorbs the sun’s heat, and radiates it down through the soil to the roots. On a year like this, that was very important.
I mixed plenty of compost into the raised bed and ran a soaker hose along the surface so that I would be able to get water to the plants after the black plastic went down – the plastic keeps most rain water out.
Last spring I ordered “slips” of a sweet potato called Beauregard from Johnny’s Selected Seeds (www.johnnyseeds.com). Slips are anemic-looking little plants with some root and a little bit of stem and leaf. Not impressive at all, I had my doubts. Geo told me to rip a hole in the plastic every 18 inches or so, and plant a slip in each hole. I stirred in a little Pro-Gro organic fertilizer for each plant. I used a hand trowel to create the hole and planted the 8-inch long slips straight down.
Finally I set up wire hoops about 4 feet apart and covered everything with row cover, and pinned down the edges to keep it from blowing away. Row cover is an agricultural fabric that breathes, but keeps in the heat and keeps out the bugs – though sweet potatoes are not bothered much by insects or diseases. Row cover allows moisture to pass through, but most rain rolls off the surface.
The vines filled up the space under the row cover, crawled out and got into the walkways. My watering system failed early in the summer, but that didn’t seem to matter. I guess water reached the plants by capillary action, absorbing it from the wet soil in the walkways.
The slips come in bundles of 25, 100 and 1,000. Not knowing how they would do (and not having much space) I opted for 25 plants, and 24 of them grew very well. A bundle of 25 costs $18.25 and fortunately, I had some black plastic and row cover in my barn. Still, it was more expensive than planting carrots or kale, that’s for sure. But the pay off was huge: I got about 60 pounds of food for the winter in a 32-foot row.
According to the Johnny’s catalog, I should have cured the sweet potatoes for 4-7 days unwashed in a well ventilated place with a temperature of 85 degrees. I didn’t do that, but even if I had read the recommendation, I don’t have such a place. But I do know that sweet potatoes should never go in the fridge. They should be stored in a humid, dark place at 60 degrees. The best I can come up with is to store them in brown paper bags in the house. My cellar is humid, but too cool.
What else did well for me? Celery root, also called celeriac, loves wet soil, so they did well. Bush beans were great – but I had low germination for my pole beans.
I got a pretty good crop of hot peppers, too, a French variety called Espelette. I wrote earlier that I tried planting some in the cavities of cement blocks. I’d heard that the blocks provided extra heat at night – which peppers love. I did some in blocks, and they produced peppers earlier than those planted in the ground. But the peppers planted in the ground ultimately produced many more fruits than those in cement block, so I won’t bother using blocks next year.
Growing your own food is a lot of work, but great satisfaction. And I know that I won’t get a big harvest of everything every year. But when I dug up the first sweet potato plant and pulled 3 one-pound potatoes I yipped and hollered like a boy who’d just gotten a brand-new red Schwinn bike.
Henry Homeyer is the author of 4 gardening books and a children’s fantasy-adventure about a boy born with a mustache and an ability to speak to animals. Learn more at www.henryhomeyer.com
This was a fabulous year for most fruits, particularly apples and pears. The abundance of it all made it impossible to eat all the fruit when ripe, so I have been processing fruit for the last few weeks. And
The Excalibur, by contrast, gets even heat and air on every tray because the fan/heater is in the back of the unit, so each tray gets equal air flow. The model I have has 9 trays, each measuring 15inches square. Not only that, the heater is programmed to fluctuate in temperature within a drying cycle to keep the fruit from getting too hot.
The NESCO unit uses 1,000 watts of energy per hour – that’s equivalent to a lot of curly light bulbs burning – but the Excalibur uses just 666 watts. Still a lot, but a lot less.
I compared the drying time for a batch of fruit, each dryer holding 15 sliced pears and 11 sliced apples. The NESCO dryer needed 9 trays for that amount of fruit, while the Excalibur needed only 7 trays. I left 2 trays empty in the Excalibur so that the 2 dryers would have equal quantities and I could compare drying times.
It’s difficult to estimate moisture content (to determine when a batch of dry fruit is adequately processed. I like the fruit chewy, not brittle. The bottom-heated NESCO dryer and the Excalibur dried the fruit in roughly the same amount of time – perhaps the Excalibur was a little quicker. The Excalibur is much quieter.
In reading the instructions I learned that dried fruit is considered “raw food” if properly prepared. Too much heat can kill the enzymes of fruit, and that occurs, according to some research, at an internal fruit temperature of 140 degrees. But it is all right to start fruit at a higher temperature for the first two hours. There is a lot of water in the fruit at the onset – and the evaporation cools the fruit so the core temperature never hits 140 degrees – even if the machine is set at 155 degrees. This also shortens the drying time considerably, saving energy.
I have always dehydrated my hot peppers especially the very hottest ones. I dry them until they are brittle, and then put them –seeds and partitions included – in my coffee grinder. This allows me to sprinkle just a little bit of “heat” into a dish – or a lot, if it pleases me.
Blueberries have a waxy outer skin, and at lower temperatures they take forever to dry. But by cranking up the temperature for a while I can dry them in a reasonable time. I bet you could freeze them first – they often burst on freezing – then dry them.
Last weekend I finally pulled the last of my carrots. A few were damaged by rodents, or had cracked. I stored all the perfect ones and dried the others. I scrubbed them well, then cut them in thin slices. I started off doing the slicing with a knife, but soon switched to my food processor, which has a special “julienne” blade that did the job nicely. I will use the dried carrots in soups this winter.
I know that some gardeners like to make dried foods to take on the trail. You could dry carrots, green peppers, squash, tomatoes and onions – the start for a good stew. You can dry meat, too, or make jerky, but I’ve never tried that. Maybe this winter.
Dehydrating fruits and vegetables intensifies the flavors and brings out the sweetness. I love to nibble on my dried pears (which I make with skins-on) while driving the car. They provide me with great satisfaction – they’re as good as eating chocolate chips, but healthier.
Winters here can be long and cold. Sometimes they are burdensome for a guy like me who loves being outside playing in the garden – planting and picking flowers, or harvesting lettuce and berries. But like the squirrels, I’m planning ahead and burying some little round things for future enjoyment. Nuts? No, I’m not. I am planting bulbs in pots now so they will bloom indoors in February and March.
Each fall in early November I plant tulips and daffodils and sometimes crocus in pots, planters, and in a window box that I take down and bring into the basement where it’s cool and dark. Almost any spring bulb can be planted for forcing, and now is the time to do it.
One nice thing about forcing bulbs is that the deer cannot get them. Tulips are like magnets for deer and rodents in many neighborhoods, though my fierce and determined Corgi, Daphne, does a pretty good job of deterring them for me. But tulips growing inside are unlikely to be bothered by anything. That said, one year rodents did get in my basement and dug up tulips that were in pots, so I sometimes cover containers of tulips with wire screening I get at the hardware store called hardware cloth.
My window box is one I built over 10 years ago out of cedar and it is still holding up nicely. (A nice winter project might be to make one yourself. Directions are in my first book, Notes from the Garden, which is now out of print but available at many libraries.) The box is 36 inches long and 7inches deep and 9 inches from front to back.
Outdoors I plant tulips and daffodils so that their tips are six inches below soil surface, and 2 to 3 inches apart. But in my window box I plant them closer together to cram as many bulbs as possible in the space given. I plant them in 2 inches of soil mix so that they have plenty of space for their roots, but this means their tips are just below the surface of the planting medium after I fill up the box.
I start the process by dumping out all the plants and soil from my window box. I take a stiff scrub brush (the one I use for cleaning out garbage cans) and clean the window box as often roots and dirt are sticking to it. I have drilled holes in the bottom of the box for drainage and I check to see that they’re not clogged.
Garden soil is great for growing bulbs outdoors but is not ideal in a container. In a pot it tends to get compacted by watering. So I make a mix that is 50% compost and 50% potting mix that I buy. That mix is very light and fluffy because it contains peat moss and perlite. Perlite is an expanded mineral – sort of a rock popcorn. It’s the white stuff that looks like Styrofoam in potting mixes.
I planted 25 large daffodils in my window box, which was a bit of a squeeze, but will be dramatic when they bloom. Some years I plant 2 or 3 varieties of daffodils in it to stagger the bloom time, but this year I went for the “Big Bang” look – all blooming at once. I will bring the box out of the cold basement in early March.
After planting I water the mix lightly if it is dry. Bulbs won’t do well if sitting in soggy planting mix, but they also are living beings that are growing roots and that need some moisture. If the soil mix dries out too much, I sometimes do a light watering half way through their winter rest.
When selecting bulbs for forcing, “early-season” varieties are best. Some varieties will be listed as “good for forcing” and those are ideal. Daffodils I give a minimum of 90 days of rest before bringing them into a warm room to start the process of above-ground growth. Tulips I recommend 120 days – 4 months from now is mid-March. If you bring them up without proper rest, you will get foliage but no blossoms. Crocus are ready in 10 weeks or so, but can be planted in the same container as daffodils – as a second layer of bulbs above the daffodils.
Those 8-inch plastic pots that are used for perennials at the garden center make good pots for forcing, too. Half a dozen tulips in one will make a very nice display indoors while there is still snow on the ground. Plant several pots and bring one into the warmth every week for a continuous display.
Oh yes, temperature is important, too. The ideal temperature for forcing bulbs is 40-45 degrees. Anything over 50 is too warm, and below freezing is too cold. You might have a place in your garage or on the steps of the bulkhead, or even in an unheated mudroom. It is best to keep the pots in the dark, but you can create that by placing a plank over the top, I suppose.
So go get some bulbs and pot them up for a late winter delight. It’s easy, it’s not costly, and you can plant those bulbs in your garden after they have done their work – cheering you up.
Henry Homeyer is the author of 4 gardening books and a fantasy-adventure for children, Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet. His Web sites are www.henryhomeyer.com and www.Gardening-Guy.com.
Now, as the leaves are disappearing (or accumulating on the lawn, demanding in a whiney voice to be raked up and used for mulch) I am pruning hardwoods like maples, birches and other deciduous trees and shrubs. For me, happiness on a sunny fall day is improving the looks and long-term health of trees by pruning – so I’m out doing some now most nice days.
It’s easier to see the form and structure of trees and shrubs at this time of year because the leaves are mostly gone. I know that some gardeners prefer to prune in the spring – I do fruit trees then – but not all trees can be pruned then. Maples and birches, among others, bleed lots of sap if pruned in March. So I do them now.
Before pruning a young tree, take some time to look at mature trees in your neighborhood. The best ones have open arms: their branches are well spaced and have branches angling off at a 45 degree angle from the trunk. Often these are trees that grow along a fence line or a dirt road so that they had sunshine coming from all sides as they grew.
You may also see some trees that have several fat trunks or stems growing almost parallel, reaching for the sky. These are the trees that split and break off in wind or ice storms. Why? An arborist might use the words “included bark.” This refers to bark that gets engulfed by the growth of 2 trunks that grow too close together. As the trunks grow fatter, bark between them is swallowed up by the two competing trunks, and creates a weak spot that can more easily split.
Recently I saw a large native cherry tree that had split in half. It was, according to my count of the rings, 65-75 years old and it was more than 50 feet tall. Sadly, it had twin trunks and one half split off and fell during a wind storm. I could see that fungus had weakened the wood – the seam between the two trunks was not a tight seal, allowing water and the fungus to enter. And now the remaining trunk is open to the elements and will not survive as long as it might otherwise.
If you have a young tree that has branches or trunks that are growing together and have a tight angle between them, you should act. You will need to remove one of the competing stems. This may seem drastic, and is best done before the stems are more than 2 or 3 inches in diameter. I removed a few recently while working at the Kilton Library in West Lebanon, NH.
Of course, removing a 2-inch stem also means you will lose all the side branches that are growing on it, too. Before unsheathing my big pruning saw I walked around each tree for several minutes. I looked at the two competing stems and tried to mentally erase one from the picture I was looking at. Would there be a big gap in the canopy? Would there be small branches that could fill in after surgery? Yes, there are always small branches that will fill in.
There are also “dormant buds” on trees that can produce branches if the tree “senses” a gap in the canopy. Trees, obviously, don’t have brains that tell them when to send out new branches. But there are stimuli such as sunshine coming through an empty spot in the canopy that will “tell” the tree to set out new growth.
At Kilton Library (where all the trees were planted in 2010) I studied the trees that I had pruned last year. I had removed some two-inch diameter stems that were growing together too tightly. I was pleased to see that the trees looked full. No big gaps. In general, removing a big stems or branch does not seem so drastic after it’s gone – even though it seems scary when it’s time to cut. And removing a big branch helps the tree to be more open, thus allowing every leaf to get some direct sunshine, which is good.
At the back of the property there is a maple that “wanted” to send branches over the fence and reach out for sunshine on the neighbor’s property. I noticed that one branch I had removed last year – only an inch in diameter or so – had sent a new branch back over the fence. Amazingly, it had grown 5 feet in one year! Interestingly, the leaves on it were nearly twice the size of the leaves on the rest of the tree. So trees will keep on producing branches to take advantage of sunshine, no matter what we do.
So if you haven’t taken a good look at the arrangement of trunks and larger branches on your trees, this is a good time to do so. You might be able to prune them yourself, but you might have to call an arborist who can take out a large branch or trunk if need be. It would be money well spent – 50 years from now you just might lose a tree, or half a tree, if you don’t do so.
Henry Homeyer is the author of 4 gardening book, and a children’s chapter book, a fantasy-adventure about a boy and a cougar. His web sites are www.gardening-guy.com and www.henryhomeyer.com.
By mid to late October, many gardens are looking quite drab. That need not be the case, and this week I’d like to mention a few of the flowering plants that are cheering up my gardens now.
Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is a native shrub that grows in the understory and blooms now (or in the early spring, for Hamamelis x intermedia). The flowers are not dramatic on most varieties– they are less than in inch in diameter, and are arranged close to the stem. Although I’ve seen witch hazel in a public garden that had red blossoms, the native species that I grow is a pure yellow and the petals are very frilly – you could say “spider-like”. The look best after leaf drop.
As a kid I went to a barber who used a witch hazel tonic as an astringent after shaving men. To make us kids feel more grown up, perhaps, he applied some on the back of our necks when he was done with us. It is a very fresh scent that is made from the bark of young stems and roots of the shrub. The leaves, when crushed, also have a nice smell.
My Seven-Sons Flower Tree (Heptacodium miconioides) is still blooming now. This is a smallish tree (under 30 feet tall), but one that grows extraordinarily fast. It is not unusual for new stems to grow 3 to 5 feet in a season. I love the bark, which is exfoliating (shaggy). Its flowers are small and white, and appear in panicles (clustsers).
I am experimenting with mine to see how it does as a pollarded tree. Pollarding is a process of cutting off most new branches back to major branches every few years, keeping the size in check and crating large knobs where new growth originates. It’s a very popular pruning technique in Europe. Last year I cut off all the smaller branches, leaving a trunk and three major branches. This year I got dense clusters of branches growing from the ends of those major branches. Interestingly enough, many of the new stems are growing out and down, almost like a weeping tree.
Chrysanthemums great fall flowers that I buy in pots each year around Labor Day. I treat mums as annuals, even though some varieties will overwinter. Why? Because to get a dense, compact plant, one must pinch back the growing stems two or more times during the summer, and I have too much going on to remember to do so most years. There are people who do this for a living, and I am happy to let them do it. I like mums in window boxes (the smaller ones) and the big, dramatic ones in pots on my front steps. When they come in peat or cardboard pots I transplant them into plastic pots as the former dry out too quickly.
Fall asters have been splendid this year, both those that I planted and those growing along the roadside or edges of fields. The wild ones are mostly blues and purples. I purchased a pink aster that is in bloom right now, a variety called ‘Alma Plotschke’. She is an intense, deep rose pink and not nearly as tall as the wild ones.
Some smaller wild asters(12 to 24 inches tall are blooming at the edge of my lawn. My reference text on native flowers (The Illustrated Book of Wildflowers and Shrubs by William Carey Grimm) lists 29 species of wild asters. These short ones have bluish-white blossoms. I believe mine are the common blue wood aster (Aster cordifolius), which is usually a light blue or lavender. The differences between wild asters can be minute and there is much variety within a species, so they could be the white wood aster (Aster divaricatus), which is also common in New England. It doesn’t matter, they’re all lovely.
Fall crocus are wonderful! True fall crocus (Crocus sativus) are not fully hardy in my cold Zone 4 garden. Various vendors list them as hardy to Zone 4 or 5 or 6. I have had them winter over, and have a client nearby who has had them blooming each fall for years – in a Zone 4 garden. These crocus are the source of saffron, but I’ve read that it takes 10,000 flowers to make an ounce of saffron!
Colchicums are also called fall crocus, but are not true crocus. They look like crocus on steroids – they are commonly 6 inches tall! I planted a lot 10 years ago, but each year I have a few less. Unfortunately their stems do not usually support the flowers, so they flop. To avoid this I have planted them in amongst a ground cover like myrtle (Vinca minor) that helps to hold them up. Mine are mainly pink, but also have a few white, both as singles and doubles.
Some annual flowers hold up against frost for awhile, too. My favorite right now is Brazilian verbena (Verbena bonariensis), which is hardy down into the 20’. It grows three feet tall on thin, stiff stems with little clusters of purple-blue flowers. The flowers seem to float above shorter things. Look for it next summer.
Fall flowers are a gift. Even when I’m thinking about woodpiles and snow shovels, a few hardy plants keep on bringing me joy.
Henry is the author of 4 gardening books and a children’s book about a boy and a cougar. His Web sites are www.Gardening-guy.com and www.henryhomeyer.com.
Irish writer Thomas Moore (1779-1852) once wrote, “A piece of the sky and a chunk of the earth is lodged in the heart of every human being.” I would like to add “And hopes for a seed waiting to be planted”. It’s why we garden – or I do, anyway – planting, watering, tending and harvesting make me feel alive, keep my temperament balanced and give me joy.
It’s mid-October and there aren’t any seeds to be planted just now (unless you count garlic cloves as seeds). But this is a good time to plant trees and shrubs. Plants store energy from photosynthesis all summer in their roots, and then in the fall the roots use that energy to extend their range – even after leaf drop. Roots grow, apparently, until the ground freezes. Roots start growing again in the spring, and do much of their root growth in early summer.
For me, the hardest part of planting a tree or shrub is finding the proper place to plant it. I have a couple of acres, but I’ve been planting things here for over 40 years and I’m running out of space. Not only that, each tree or shrub has specific needs for sunlight exposure, moisture and soil type.
Soil is the easiest to “customize”. I can change the pH and texture or tilth pretty easily. But my back field is pretty wet, and many woody plants don’t like their roots sitting in soggy soil. With a high water table, I have to limit what I plant there. (Willows love it, and my magnolia , too.)
Sunlight is also hard to adjust. Yes, I have a chain saw, but nice trees keep on getting nicer as they grow – but creating more shade. Many nice flowering plants like full sun, which is defined as 6 hours or more of summer sun per day.
After removing a pear tree earlier this year, I had space to plant a blue hydrangea (A ‘Twist and Shout’ variety of the Endless Summer series) that had been growing in a big pot near my front door all summer. I cleared out the weeds and loosened the soil in a 5-foot circle. Then I modified the soil to meet the needs of this particular shrub: I added peat moss and garden sulfur to acidify the soil, stirring it in with my CobraHead weeder.
It’s important to get the depth of the planting hole right for trees and shrubs, much more so than for vegetables or flowers. Trees (and to a lesser degree, shrubs) can be damaged if planted too deeply, as the bark on the trunk is very susceptible to fungal rot if covered with soil or mulch. Vegetables such as tomatoes and broccoli can be planted a little deep in order to stimulate new root growth along the buried stem.
It is good to dig the hole for a tree or shrub just the depth of the root ball. After I removed my hydrangea from the pot I measured the root ball and found it to be 8 inches from surface to bottom. I dug a hole and measured the depth of it by placing the handle of a rake across the hole, and then checking it with a measuring tape. It was 6 inches at first, so I carefully scraped out 2 more inches. That allowed me to set the root ball on unexcavated soil; soil that has been dug out and replaced tends to settle – which you don’t want to happen. Sometimes, if the soil is really awful, I will dig down deeper, and then add improved soil and pack it down afterwards with my foot.
The shape of a planting hole for a tree or shrub is important. It should be flat on the bottom, and gently slope upwards toward the surface of the soil. It should be wide, not deep. A minimum width should be three times the size of your rootball, and five times is even better. Roots of most trees and shrubs go wide, not deep. Roots go out beyond the ”drip line” – the area directly under their leaves. So it is good to have nice loose soil around your tree or shrub to facilitate root growth.
Winter is not so far away. In order to allow roots to grow and develop for as long as possible, it is good to place a two-inch layer of mulch over the root zone – but no more than 2 inches. The mulch will keep the soil warm later into the fall and keep lawn mowers and those string trimmers at bay.
I’ve seen trees with what I call “mulch volcanoes” – mulch piled up deeply against the trunk of a tree. That can be a death sentence, as most bark mulch or ground branches will retain moisture and microbes that will eventually rot the cambium layer of a tree. It takes years to kill a tree with bark mulch, so many people don’t attribute the layer of mulch to the death of their tree six to ten years later. Leave a “donut hole” free of mulch around your tree to avoid that.
So go to your local garden center and buy yourself a nice tree or shrub. There is still plenty of time to plant. And I think you’ll feel a great sense of accomplishment if you do.
Henry Homeyer is a gardening teacher, coach and public speaker. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746. He is happy to answer gardening questions, but please include a stamped envelope if sending a real letter.
Some vegetables are as reliable as a sturdy shovel. Others – we all know – please us some years, disappoint us others. We grow tomatoes never knowing if the harvest will be bountiful or meager. But garlic and carrots and leeks, for me at least, are totally reliable. Year after year I know that I’ll harvest a good crop.
Now is the time to plant garlic. If you haven’t bought any garlic for planting, you’d better hustle to get some before your local farm stand closes for the season. It is, after all, officially fall. Avoid buying grocery store garlic as it is often treated with a chemical to keep it from sprouting – and is probably the wrong kind. But your local farm stand or farmers market should have garlic that will work just fine. Some garden centers will have seed garlic for sale, too.
A few words about types of garlic: there are two basic categories and many different varieties, each with a distinct flavor and “bite”. What we grow in New England is hard-neck garlic, which has a stiff woody stalk around which the individual cloves (sections) grow. Soft-neck garlic is generally from California, and is the kind that is braided and hung on restaurant walls – or found in grocery stores. Soft neck garlic is less hardy and may not overwinter.
I plant my garlic in mid-October. This allows the plants to establish roots, and then go dormant. If you plant in spring, you may find the garlic bolts and does not grow big cloves.
If you are using your own garlic that you harvested in August, pick your finest heads (or bulbs) to use for planting. In my experience, small heads will produce small heads next year. And for cooking, big heads are easier to work with.
Prepare a bed by digging in compost to enrich the soil and to provide good drainage. I create raised beds that are 30 inches wide and 6 inches above the walkways. I rake the bed smooth and create furrows 6 to 8 inches apart across the row. I then sprinkle organic fertilizer in the furrows and scratch it in. Next I separate the cloves and plant them about 4 inches apart and 2 inches deep. I cover the cloves and pat down the soil.
Finally I cover everything with a thick layer of straw or mulch hay. I spread the hay 8 to 12 inches deep (and fluffy), but by spring it has packed down and is more like 4 or 5 inches of cover. This mulch keeps most weeds at bay, but the garlic grows right through it.
Most of my carrots are still in the ground – they tolerate frost and cold, and get sweeter after a good chilling – some of the starches turn to sugars. I generally store carrots for winter in a spare fridge in the basement, but you can also store them in a bucket of damp sand in the garage, mudroom or bulkhead. Mice love carrots, so I recommend covering the bucket of carrots with quarter-inch wire mesh.
Another way to store carrots is to leave them in the ground. You can keep the ground from freezing by covering them with a thick layer of mulch hay that is then covered with a layer of leaves. I put a pole at each end of the row so that I can find it under a deep January snow. This method works fine, though I have suffered some rodent damage on occasion. If you find any chewed carrots now, harvest and store inside.
Leeks are another friend of mine that always produce well. I love leek and potato soup in the winter so I store most of mine, though I keep some for fresh use as a substitute for onion when my onions (fickle, some years) are less than bountiful. In my experience, leeks stored in the fridge or cold cellar lose their appeal quite quickly, so I freeze them. I clean and chop them up, then freeze in freezer-grade zipper bags. I do not blanch them.
Here is my version of leek and potato soup:
3 strips lean thick-cut bacon
2-3 cups chopped leeks
2 -3 cups diced potatoes
½ cup flour
2 chopped tomatoes
2 cups milk
1 handful chopped fresh parsley
1 bay leaf
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon Herbes de Provence
Lightly brown bacon in a heavy soup pot, then add leeks and potatoes, stirring constantly to brown. Add 4-6 cups water. In a dish stir water into the flour to get a thick but lump-free mixture. Add to soup pot and stir well. Add spices and tomatoes and simmer for half an hour. Just before serving add milk but do not boil the milk. You can make this vegetarian by avoiding the bacon and substituting butter or olive oil.
I have a vegetable garden, in part, because I love to cook. Eating my own vegetables give me great pleasure, particularly in winter – which is just around the corner.
Contact Henry by email at email@example.com or write him at PO box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746. Visit his Web site at www.Gardening-Guy.com.
As we get older, most of us develop aches and pains. As gardeners, we need to learn how to move and use our bodies so that we don’t end up feeling like a quarterback after a sacking. I love working as a garden coach, partly because I am, at heart, a school teacher; I also like finding solutions to almost anything. One of my clients, a woman with a bad shoulder, got me thinking about all the tricks I have learned over the years to minimize pain caused by gardening.
My client and I were planting some pretty big hostas. They were in large plastic pots and probably weighed about 15 pounds each. I showed her how to hold the pot upside down in one hand, and smack the bottom of the pot with the other so that the roots and soil would slide out of the pot. But with her bad shoulder, she couldn’t do that.
I taught her to cut open the pot instead. It’s a technique I use when working with trees in pots. I placed the pot on the ground and inserted the blade of my ever-present pruners into one of the drain holes at the bottom of the black plastic pot. I slit up the side to the top, and then sliced again across the bottom. Then I rolled the rootball free of the pot. Finally, I tickled the roots to loosen them up – so they will be ready to explore their new environment.
Getting down on your knees to plant anything (or to pull weeds) is tough if you have arthritic knees or hips. I can recommend a couple of ways to deal with it. My late friend Marguerite Tewksbury, a lifelong organic gardener who lived in Windsor, VT, started carrying a hoe in the garden in her late eighties. She used it not only like a walking stick, it helped her getting down – or up. By leaning on a hoe, you can distribute your weight and make a more stable, 3-point stance.
Of course I am young and healthy at 67, so I don’t need any aids getting down to weed. But sometimes at the end of the day, it’s nice to have something to lean on when on getting up. I like a 5-gallon pail for that, I can push up on it and get up more easily, with less strain on my back. Or sometimes I use my CobraHead weeder to help push me up a little.
Picking beans recently I found bending over tiresome for the length of time I needed to pick all my beans. So I used a 5-gallon pail to sit on. Gardener’s Supply (www.gardeners.com) makes something that looks very good, their “garden kneeler”; it has hand rails at the sides for getting up when kneeling or that allow you to convert it into a seat.
If you suffer from carpal tunnel, pruning may be painful for you. Most manufacturers now make hand pruners with a rotating grip that allegedly minimizes the problem. The Fiskars company has come out with a series of pruners and lopers that offer a different technology – gears to reduce the amount of pressure it takes to make a cut. I have a pair of their biggest loppers, and find them fabulous. The gears really do reduce the work of cutting larger diameter hardwood branches.
One of the most ingenious tools I ever saw used was a homemade corn planter used – and made – by a man in his 90’s. I saw him using it as I drove down the road, and I stopped to talk. He could no longer bend down to plant the seeds, so after his garden was rototilled by his son-in-law, he used a hoe to make a furrow for the seeds. Then he planted using a 30-inch piece of garden hose to get the seeds from his hand to the ground.
The hose poked up through a wide tin can (perhaps a fruit cake or cookie tin). He put all his corn seeds in the can, and then picked them up one at a time and dropped them into the hose (which poked a couple of inches into the can). Then he moved on a few inches and did it again. I’m sure that corn tasted mighty good to him, in part, because he had figured out how to keep on gardening.
Some of my friends who have moved to retirement communities keep their hand in gardening by planting in pots on a deck. Instead of 20 tomato plants, one or two in self-watering containers is what they manage. A pot roughly the size of a 5-gallon pail will do nicely for a tomato – and not have much room for weeds. Smaller pots sitting on railings can handle lettuce or basil very nicely.
If your back bothers you, be careful when hoeing or raking. Don’t lean forward. Keep your back straight. And if you need to pick up a bucket of weeds, place one foot forward and as you bend, tighten your tummy muscles.
None of us is getting any younger. But if you like gardening, you should be able to garden forever. I intend to. Please write or e-mail me if you have a good tip or trick. I’ll post them on my Web site, www.Gardening-Guy.com. Thanks.
Contact Henry at P.O. Box 364 Cornish Flat, NH 03746 or e-mailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is the author of 4 gardening books and a recent children’s book about a boy and a cougar, Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet.