A dozen years ago I decided to become rich and famous by writing a bestselling book. I would travel the country, talking to farmers – some conventional, some organic, some using that “new” technology of the time, GMO agriculture. I thought my book would explain what eaters wanted to know about how their food was produced. It would outsell Fast Food Nation.
I outfitted my aging van with a bed, a fridge and a small battery-operated fan for those days when the temperatures exceeded 100 degrees (the van had no AC). I drove across the country, talking to farmers along the way. I had made arrangements to work on a 300 acre organic farm in Idaho for a few weeks, working alongside the Peruvian laborers. Unfortunately, I never found a publisher for the idea, so I never wrote the book. But I learned a lot about commercial agriculture.
In Idaho, I remember bouncing along on the back of a 4-wheeler to see a conventional potato farmer’s fields. He stopped and added 4 ounces of fungicide into an irrigation pivot that served 30 acres of potatoes. What would happen if one of his laborers, many of whom do not read English, had added a quart of fungicide instead of 4 ounces? And why, I wondered, did the farmer have a garden where his wife grew veggies for their use, including potatoes? That reinforced my conviction that I want to eat organic food, preferably food I grow myself.
This past summer I had access to a large field that been tended organically for years, but allowed to go fallow. I grew potatoes, tomatoes, squashes of all sorts, corn, beans and more. I called it my farmette.
In the past I had only grown beans for fresh eating or for freezing. But with plenty of space, I also grew beans for drying despite the fact that dry beans are not expensive – at least not the conventional ones. Still, I thought, wouldn’t it be nice to make baked beans or chili just using my own dry beans?
Dry beans are a lot of work – beyond just planting, weeding and protecting from the deer (who love them). The bean pods must get totally dry either in the field or in the barn or house. In good weather, letting them dry on the vine is best. Then they must be threshed or hulled. That means getting every last seed out of the shells, which can be tedious. And it is hard to get all the bits of the outer hulls separated from the beans. Winnowing outdoors on a windy day is the easiest way to do so. Fortunately my partner, Cindy, finds getting dry beans ready for winter use to be a nice contemplative task.
Invited to a solstice potluck, I decided to make a pot of baked beans just using my own ingredients – or as close to it as possible. The beans were a big success, so I’m sharing the recipe with you. And, obviously, you can buy the beans or anything else you lack from your own garden.
½ lb. bacon, chopped (optional)
2 cups dry black beans, soaked overnight in plenty of water
3-4 cups chopped tomatoes – frozen whole, or from a can
2 large onions, chopped medium to fine.
2 cloves, minced
2 cups dried pears or other dried fruit (apricots work well, too, but use less)
1 to 2 cups dried cherry tomatoes
3-4 ounces tomato paste
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 tablespoon Herbes de Provence (or rosemary and thyme)
Dried hot pepper to taste – ½ teaspoon of chipotle is a good start. Jalapenos or Espellette are good, too.
½ cup maple syrup or more, to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
Water as needed.
I began by rinsing the beans that had soaked overnight, and cooking them for an hour with plenty of water. They soak up considerable water.
In a heavy enameled pot I fried the bacon, then drained most of the fat. I used a local thick-cut smoked bacon, Garfield’s, from Meriden, NH – just down the road from me. Then I added the onions, and cooked at low heat until translucent. If making vegetarian beans, use olive oil to sauté the onions.
To the onions and bacon I added the beans and immediately covered with water. I added the chopped tomatoes that I had frozen whole last summer, the tomato paste, the maple syrup, spices and garlic, and continued cooking at low heat. The beans should be covered with liquid at all times.
Dried pears or other fruit add a nice sweetness to the beans, but you can add more maple syrup instead. I chopped my pears into small pieces, and added them with the dried cherry tomatoes to the pot.
I cooked the beans on the stove top for an hour, tasting often to see if I needed more hot peppers, other spices or maple syrup. Then I transferred everything into a ceramic bean pot and put it in the oven, covered, for another 2 to 3 hours at 300 degrees. Watch out for juices bubbling over – I always keep a cookie sheet under the pot. Add water if the beans get too dry.
For me, at least, eating something wonderful created from my own veggies and fruits is a real treat. I know that it has no toxic chemicals and that the ingredients have been grown with love. So start planning your vegetable garden now – the days are already getting longer.
Henry is the author of 5 books. His website is www.Gardening-guy.com.
Technically, winter is here – despite the lack of snow. The sun is often lurking behind gray clouds, and on a good day we get just 9 hours of light. I miss the colors of summer. I still try to keep fresh cut flowers on the table – even if they’re not flowers from my garden.
Cut flowers are among modern America’s true bargains. For the price of a bottle of wine – or even a few of cups of fancy coffee – you can buy flowers that will grace your table for up to three weeks. But there are some things you should know about getting good table-life for your investment.
First, you need to buy fresh flowers that have been carefully tended – and you can’t beat a florist for that. Yes, grocery stores sell bouquets, but many grocery stores sell bouquets in the fruit and vegetable department. Apples and some other fruits give off ethylene gas, which promotes ripening – or in the case of flowers, getting old and unattractive.
Cut flowers need to take up water to stay fresh and healthy. Stems tend to scab over after a day or two, which means they cannot take up replacement water, or not much, so they suffer. A floral shop has trained personnel who trim each stem in the store every other day, taking off three quarters of an inch each time. And someone who regularly changes the water to keep to keep it fresh. Chain grocery stores probably count on you buying their flowers before the flowers need to be trimmed or their water changed.
When you bring your flowers home, get them right in water. And follow the 3-second rule: never take longer than 3 seconds to get your flowers in the vase after trimming the stems. Most florists give you packs of powder to put in the water, and the stuff works to keep flowers fresh longer. It inhibits bacteria from growing, which is good. Bacteria will impede water take-up.
If you want maximum life out of you flowers, NEVER let leaves enter the water. Leaves will rot, promoting growth of bacteria. And keep your arrangement cool if you can. Putting it near a radiator or woodstove will shorten its life. If you have invested in roses or tulips, you may wish to move the vase to the entryway or mudroom at bedtime to keep the flowers extra cool during the night – or put them in the fridge.
Some flowers are better picks than others if you’re on a budget and can’t afford to buy new flowers every week. Here are my recommendations for good cut flowers:
Valhalla, the carnations will still be good!
Looking for a fun project with your kids? It’s easy to change the colors of chrysanthemums. Leave them out of water for 12 hours, then cut off 2-3 inches and put them in water with food coloring. Obviously, you should start with white chrysanthemums. The colors you get may not be exactly the color you see on the food coloring, but it can be quite dramatic.
Everyone loves to receive the gift of cut flowers, even guys. So treat your loved one – or yourself- to fresh flowers this winter. They’re cheerful, and can make winter less oppressive.
Henry is the author of 4 gardening books, including a new, revised second edition of The New Hampshire Gardener’s Companion: An Insider’s Guide to Gardening in the Granite State. His website is www.Gardening-guy.com.
When I was a boy of eight or nine I planted a grapefruit seed, hoping it would produce a tree that would provide us with a nice source of winter fruit. Ten years later it was 3 to 4 feet tall, with nice shiny leaves. I went off to college, leaving it in the care of my houseplant-challenged mom. Unfortunately, it pined for me and died a slow death – probably due to overwatering.
My grapefruit tree never blossomed in the 10 years I cared for it. So I was amazed to encounter a grapefruit tree loaded with fruit in the south-facing windows of my optometrist, Dr. Chris Fields in Lebanon, NH. He told me that he had planted seeds 22 years ago when his son was born, and that this was its second year of producing fruit.
Dr. Fields said it bloomed magnificently this past spring and that he went around with a paint brush, transferring pollen from stamens to pistils. The year before he had allowed moving air to do the pollinating, and he had fewer fruits. Some of his fruit felt heavy and full of moisture, others felt light – as if they were made of green Styrofoam. Huh. He’s not sure if they will fill up later.
Meanwhile, I am experimenting with my pineapple plant. I reported in this column last summer that I had bought a pineapple plant, even though I was told that after harvesting its one fruit, the plant would die. I ate the fruit in July and kept it going all summer, enjoying the large, shiny strap-like leaves.
Each fall I pick the “team” of plants that get to come inside for the winter, and competition for window space is tough. The pineapple did not make the team this fall, and after a few hard frosts I went to clean out the pot for winter storage. Much to my surprise, there were two new green shoots growing beneath the frosted leaves, and the root system appeared vigorous.
So I cut off all the old, dead leaves and re-potted the youngsters and brought them in. We shall see what happens, but my mouth is watering as I think about the fresh pineapples I (may) get next summer, or perhaps the summer after. It’s always fun to experiment.
Back when I was a kid a common school project was to start an avocado plant by suspending a pit by three toothpicks in a glass of water, allowing the base to just kiss the water. But when I tried that a few years ago, I was unable to get one growing. I asked Mrs. Google, and she explained why: avocados need to be started soon after picking. And with modern refrigeration techniques, avocados can be kept edible for months – but older fruits will not start new plants from their pits. Makes sense.
In the fall of 2013 I spotted an avocado plant growing in the compost pile and rescued it, potting it up and giving it a place for the winter. These last two summers it has lived on the deck, getting sun and rain and generally enjoying life outdoors. It is now 30 inches tall, and the stem is half an inch in diameter. Of course I remember avocado trees from my time in the Peace Corps in West Africa – they were bigger than full-sized apple trees here when they were loaded with fruit, so I doubt that mine will ever be anything but a handsome houseplant.
I bought a small banana plant a dozen years or more ago, and kept it outdoors on my deck each summer, bringing it in for the winter ever since. It came with the variety name ‘Cavendish’ which is what most commercial bananas are.
In a 12-inch pot the banana plant got about 3 feet tall, but never taller. And it never hinted at producing fruit – though it did create several other small banana plants that could be dug and re-potted. This year I gave it to Dr. Fields – if he can get a grapefruit tree to produce, maybe he’ll get the bananas to produce, too. I told him that I want one of the bananas if it produces, though.
So Santa Claus, if you are reading this, here is my wish: I want a lemon or lime tree that will produce fruit for me here in Cornish Flat, New Hampshire. Yes, I know, Santa, that I have apples, plums and pears that produce nice fruit outdoors. But that is not the same. I want fresh citrus in winter, and know a number of people who have succeeded in growing lemons or limes indoors. And I’ve been a good boy this year … mostly.
Henry is a gardener who will try growing almost anything once. His email address is email@example.com. Let him know if you ever got a banana tree to produce. His mailing address is POB 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746. He is the author or 4 gardening books.
After a cold snap recently we had 3 days of cold rain. By the second day, with no relief in sight, I went out to my garden and dug up the last of my root crops – carrots, watermelon radishes and purple daikon radishes. I figured that I’d better get them out of the ground while the getting was good. I came back wet and muddy, but feeling much more cheerful than before I went to the garden.
By day three, I was positively squirrely. I needed to do something outdoors. So I got dressed for an extended time in the garden: I layered on some Ibex brand wool long johns, two layers on top, and one on the bottom. Ibex makes its products from Merino wool, so they are not scratchy and seem to last forever. Then I put on rain pants and an LL Bean Gortex raincoat that keeps me dry and helps keep me warm. Rubber-palmed stretchy garden gloves protected my hands. Finally, I put on wool socks and my insulated Muck brand boots. I was ready.
I often warn gardeners not to walk on the garden soil when it is wet for fear of compacting it and ruining its structure. But I had some raised beds in the vegetable garden where I had harvested root crops – but not the late-season weeds that were there. I figured that so long as I worked carefully and never stepped off the walkways that I’d be fine.
I used a garden fork to loosen the soil near tap-rooted dandelions, then carefully tugged them out. How had so many escaped my notice? Well, I guess it was the “late-season weed blindness” that many of us suffer from. It is often spring before I notice certain weeds – because they’re blooming.
I did know, however, that I had a fair amount of chickweed (Stellaria media) in my garden, as that weed grows whenever the ground is not frozen – including early and late in the growing year. I once interviewed author David Mas Masumoto (author of Epitaph for a Peach) who told me that chickweed is a ”good weed”. It’s good because it blooms early and beneficial insects like ladybugs depend on its nectar for food before the aphids turn up as lunch.
Chickweed is a low-growing annual that has very small pointed leaves, each only a quarter to half an inch in length. The flowers – and mine are present now – are small and white; on cold rainy days, the flowers are just like me – buttoned up tightly. With a hand lense or field scope you can see that it has fine hairs on only one side of the stem in a single band. It pulls easily, and best of all, it is edible in salads! I think it tastes like mache or miner’s lettuce – okay to mix in, but not as a prime salad ingredient.
After about 15 minutes my hands were cold, so I went in and found my Ibex glove liners, which solved the problem. Wool is warm, even if wet. And I put on another layer of socks, and that kept my feet warm, too.
I buy composted cow manure by the truckload, and still have a supply left from last spring’s delivery. So after weeding out two small beds I brought down a couple of wheelbarrows of compost, spread it on top of the beds and gently stirred it into the top few inches with a long-handled potato fork.
I grow my vegetables in beds that are mounded up, or occasionally boxed in with planks. In either case, plants take out soil ingredients, and every time you pull a weed (or carrot) some soil goes with the roots, no matter how careful you are. So beds need new soil or compost added each year to keep their size.
Once the beds were all prepared for spring, I found some lawn that had been covered with late-falling leaves – oaks. Oaks are among the last to shed their leaves, and so had escaped earlier raking. I gathered them up and used them to cover the beds.
During this period of cold, cloudy, dark, damp, dismal miserable weather I collected some greenery to use in vases this winter. Pachysandra is a common shade groundcover that will look good all winter in a vase of water. In fact, it will even set out roots into the water. Just keep the leaves out of the water, and change the water from time to time. It doesn’t need to be on a sunny window, and can complement any flower arrangement you buy at the store. So I picked some and brought it in.
What else did I do during the week of wet weather? I did a little pruning – nothing major, no ladders, I just tuned up a few shrubs and a small tree. I have a common ninebark, one called ‘Diablo’, which looks as neat as an unmade bed right now. But I resisted the urge to prune it as I know it blooms early in the summer, and pruning it now would remove the flower buds. Lilacs, forsythia, and rhododendrons: all these and more have their buds ready for spring. Some flowers I can sacrifice, others not.
So if you get tired of being indoors, go ahead, dress up warmly and get out there – even if it’s raining. It’s very restorative.
Henry can be reached at P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include a SASE if you wish a reply to questions by regular mail.
Lights, decorated trees, carols on the radio and in the stores: all these say the holidays are here. For several years now I’ve been too busy (or too lazy) to create my own wreath, but this year I was inspired to make one. I saw some simply amazing wreaths made by Gary Hamel and Amy Franklin of Riverview Farm in Plainfield, NH (www.riverviewnh.com) and called Gary to see if I could come and watch them work. Later I made my own – and you can, too.
Gary is an artist and Jack-of-all trades. His mother, Alice, made a wreath for their front door every year using materials from their farm to celebrate the solstice and brighten the season. On a flyer for wreath workshops at Riverview Farm, Gary wrote that a wreath is ”the symbol of unending years. The evergreen boughs represent the continuing presence of life in winter’s deep sleep. The dried flowers are the memory of the season past, and the grasses and seeds are the presence of the year to come”. I like that.
The Franklins at Riverview Farm grow and collect materials for their wreaths all year. Prime among the ingredients are dried Thai peppers – some red, some yellow – which grow several to a stem. They hang them in the barn to dry and get ready for wreath season. Also available for use in wreaths are dried miniature ears of corn, stems of rye and decorative grasses, shallots, rose hips, dried flowers, cones, nuts and and dried leaves. As Gary said, “this is not your grandmother’s wreath.”
Gary explained that the four herbs of the advent season are rosemary, sage, lavender and thyme, so he likes to use them in wreaths, too. Fragrant herbs like those four and others such as Sweet Annie (a vigorous growing perennial in the Artemesia genus) smell great when making the wreaths, but probably aren’t noticeable to most people once they are on the front door.
Making a wreath is not tough work at all. First I went to a Christmas tree farm and got a “reject” – a balsam fir tree that would not normally be salable. I wasn’t sure how many branches I would need, so I lugged the whole tree home. It turns out that I only needed about five branches.
Balsam fir is probably the best tree for making wreaths, though Gary and Amy also mix in some cedar or pine in some of their wreaths. Spruce is also suitable, but a bit prickly to work with. Canadian hemlock is not suitable – the needles fall off too soon, even if kept cold.
I wanted some bright color for my wreath, so I put on my barn boots and headed off to a local swamp where I had seen the bright red berries of winterberry, our native deciduous holly (Ilex verticillata). Winterberry usually grows in standing water, and most years I get my feet wet, boots or not.
This year I got smarter: I brought my pole pruner. The one I use has a pistol grip like a pair of hand pruners which allows me not only snip off berry-laden branches, but also to grab the cut branches by squeezing gently on the handle. The one I use is made by ARS and sold by an orchard supply company in Massachusetts, OESCO (www.oescoinc.com).
Winterberry tends to drop its berries, but Gary Hamel told me how to prevent that: get a can of clear Rust-oleum paint and spray the branches. At the hardware store a helpful clerk suggested that of the various clear products, lacquer would work best as a glue, so that is what I used. When I made my wreath, only a few of the berries fell off.
I collected other dried plants for my wreath including goldenrod stems with galls, teasel (a weed with wonderful prickly seed pods), dried black-eyed Susan and bee balm stems, red-twigged dogwood and 2-inch spheres of blue-black berries of the wild vine, carrion berry (Smilax herbacea). I sprayed the carrion berries with the lacquer to keep them from falling off, too.
A key to a good wreath is making the stems secure. Buy a spool of green wreath wire from your local garden center or florist, and a wire wreath form. I used a double ring 18 inches in diameter. This year, instead of making bundles and then attaching them, I followed Gary’s technique of using one continuous piece of wire for the entire wreath, tying the bundles on as the wreath progressed.
First, I tied the wire securely onto the wreath form. Then I made and attached my greens and decorative elements. At the base of each bundle I made five tight loops of wire around the stems going one way, then another 3 or 4 turns going back the other. That made the greens very secure.
Each bundle I made started with 5 stems of balsam fir. Two were about 10 inches long, the other three were shorter. Then I placed a stem of winterberry in the middle, and added other elements. I alternated the various elements, some in one bundle, then skipping them in the next, repeating in the third. Only the red berries and fir were in each bundle. Each bundle should be about the size and shape of your hand.
It takes about 20 bundles of greens to complete a wreath. The only tricky part is at the very end, to attach the last bundle. I see why people use red ribbons at the top: not only to look good, but to cover up the inevitable gap. I didn’t have a ribbon, so I used a brass bell. Gary’s mom insisted that her wreath come off the door on February 2, Groundhog’s Day, also known as Candelmas. She unwound the wire and burned the greens. Me? I’ll keep it up as long as it looks good.
Henry is the author of 5 books. His website is www.Gardening-Guy.com/.
It’s that time of year again. Time to think about buying gifts for our loved ones. For gardeners there are so many things, selecting something is easy – from under $10 to over $500. Let me play Santa, offering you ideas to choose from – or things to avoid.
Let’s start with the no-no’s: Unless your sweetie has asked for more houseplants, don’t buy houseplants. The only exception to that might be an orchid in bloom – if she can consider it like cut flowers and jettison it after it finishes blooming. But in general, houseplants are work, and require space on a windowsill. Likewise avoid buying a do-it-yourself beehive kit or an earthworm farm for digesting the leftover lettuce that would otherwise go in the compost.
On the other hand, a truckload of good compost would be welcomed by almost any gardener. Just don’t have Santa deliver it on the driveway. Santa has to deliver to the garden, or near the garden. Composted barn scrapings are sold by most dairy farmers and garden centers, and by some lawn maintenance companies. Ask for “hot composted manure” or aged barn scrapings. The hot composted stuff should not have any viable weed seeds.
Garden gloves are good gifts. These range in price from $6.95 to $24.95. Now days you can even get them in pink. Me? I like the stretchy gloves impregnated with latex on the palms, but not on the backs, so hands can breathe.
Last summer I got a set of deer-repelling blinking lights. Quite innovative. They are solar powered, and emit a red LED light all night that scares deer or other pests. It is called Nite-Guard Solar (www.niteguard.com). You need at least 4 of these devices, so that one is facing each direction around the garden at eye-height of the deer or raccoon. In my limited use, they seem to be a big help. Of course, with heavy deer pressure, only an 8-foot fence is 100% effective.
Speaking of deer, another problem they present is Lyme disease, carried by ticks that deer and mice carry. There is a gaiter available that is impregnated with permethrin. These gaiters wrap around your pants to prevent ticks from getting to you – and to kill them if they try to attach to your pant legs. If you have a lots of ticks, these may be a great help. Available on line at www.Lymeez.com. This is a new version of one that I tried earlier, and the manufacturer assures me it will be ready for shipment by December 19.
I’m not, in general, a big fan of rototillers, but was given a little one to try out last spring. It’s called the Mantis tiller (www.mantis.com). It only weighs 24 pounds and digs down to a maximum of 10 inches. I used it for working compost into the top 6 inches of my vegetable garden and found that it did a good job. It starts easily and runs well.
My basic complaint with large tillers is that they can go down 18 inches or so, moving microorganisms from one soil depth to another. This little guy is less likely to do that. Big ones can also damage soil structure, particularly if wet.
This summer I got a sauerkraut crock from Gardeners Supply (www.gardeners.com) and like it a lot. Mine has a 1.3 gallon capacity, and comes with a kit that includes weights to keep the kraut submerged. It has a water-sealed air lock for the cover which allows the gases to be vented, but no extraneous air-borne yeasts or bacteria to enter it.
Every year I mention my favorite weeding tool, the Cobrahead Weeder (www.cobrahead.com). It is available everywhere now because it really works: like a single steel finger it can tease out long grass roots, prepare a place for a tomato seedling, or get under a big weed, allowing you to pull from above and below. If your Sweetie doesn’t have one, get one, and she’ll love you even more!
Books are always good gifts. I recently got a copy of a nice book by Vermont garden designer and author Gordon Hayward and his wife Mary called Tending Your Garden: A Year-Round Guide to Garden Maintenance. Hayward is a hands-on guy who knows a lot, and the book if full of lovely photos and sensible ideas. I also love his book, Stone in the Garden. In fact, I like all his books!
Forest Trees of Vermont by Trevor Evans is one of the nicest guides to trees I have seen. Great photos, easy-to use, it even comes with a little ruler for measuring leaves! Applicable anywhere in the Northeast. Available from Forestry Press, www.ForestryPress.com.
In general, if you like an author, any book by the same author will be good. Thus you could look for books by Michael Dirr (trees, shrubs), Barbara Damroch (general gardening), Ed Smith (vegetables) or Sydney Eddison (flowers and design). And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my own books – they cover just about everything, but with an organic bias. My New Hampshire Gardener’s Companion is just out in an updated second edition and is relevant anywhere in New England.
Lastly, if you really don’t know what to get or are too busy to find something good, get a gift certificate to a local, family-owned garden center and let your loved pick a gift. Every serious gardener lusts after new perennials and shrubs, so why not facilitate the process with a gift certificate? And the garden centers would be happy for your business at this, a slow time of year.
Henry’s website is www.Gardening-Guy.com. Send questions to him at email@example.com.
Even if you raked your leaves in October, you probably have some more to clean up now. I do. Of course I was off gallivanting for much of October and hadn’t done any raking until recently. Still, trees like oaks and apples are still dropping leaves.
When I was a boy in Connecticut, my gardening Grampy would take the train or a bus from Spencer, Massachusetts each fall to visit us. In addition to getting some homemade apple pie and seeing his grandchildren, he came to help us rake the leaves. We lived in the country with close to an acre of lawn, I’d estimate, surrounded by a mixed hardwood forest. A lot of leaves fell –or blew- onto that lawn.
If you are of a certain age, you remember that back in the 1950’s there were no blue plastic tarps. We only had a wheelbarrow – one we called “the leaf cart” – to carry off many bushels of leaves. But Grampy was a tailor by trade, and made something to spread out on the lawn. He sewed together old sheets or bedspreads to make a large square of cloth, and brought it with him when he came each year. We raked the leaves onto that and when it was full, he drew the 4 corners together. Then, like Santa about to go down a chimney, he loaded it onto his back and carried it away.
Those leaves slowly broke down and made some of the most delicious compost you could ever imagine. Dark in color, it was loved by earthworms and was a great addition to our vegetable garden, flower pots and flower beds a few years after the leaves were collected.
It makes sense that leaves would make great compost. Trees mine the soil, bringing up minerals that end up in leaves. And, by the miracle of photosynthesis, trees make sugars and carbohydrates that build plant bodies. Re-using these elements is the original recycling. Trees have been dropping leaves and letting the bacteria, fungi and fauna of the forest break them down and re-use the elements for ages. Collecting them for use in our gardens is our way of capitalizing on a natural process.
Long ago I visited garden writer Sydney Eddison in her Connecticut garden. It was towards the end of a prolonged summer drought, one so bad that mature oaks were dying. There was a watering ban, but her flower gardens were thriving and, when I felt the soil, it was lightly damp. I asked her how she did it.
It was simple, she said. For 30 years her husband, Martin, had collected leaves each fall, running them over with a lawnmower and bagging them. He saved them in the barn, and in the spring Sydney spread out the chopped leaves and lawn grass around her perennials after they appeared. This mulch kept down weeds, attracted earthworms and enriched the soil. And it held moisture.
I use my leaves in the garden, too, though I do not bother bagging them. Most I spread over my mounded, raised vegetable beds after they have been weeded and re-shaped in the fall. They keep weeds from getting an early start, and keep out weed seeds that are blowing in the wind. Because they have been chopped, they don’t blow around much, and certainly not after a rain.
My neighbors, Susan and Joel Kinne, collect their leaves and put them in a bin they made with steel fence posts and wire mesh. It is about 4 feet on a side, and 4 feet high. I’ve seen the compost they have harvested from their bin, and it is gorgeous. Any self-respecting plant would love some in its soil. According to Joel, it takes between 2 and 3 years to go from leaf to compost, and they never bother turning the pile or doing anything else for the leaves.
I take my food scraps and the leaves and stems of kale, carrots and other veggies and toss it in a bin I made from old wood pallets. I have to admit I rarely bother to collect the compost – it is more a way of keeping vegetable matter out of the waste stream than making compost. But recently I took off one side of the bin and dug out some of the material from deep under this years’ additions.
I was amazed at the number of earthworms in the top layers – this year’s waste. There hundreds, perhaps thousands. Wriggling and squirming, small ones, medium sized ones. That’s good. They eat the food and their waste, called castings, is high in nitrogen and other minerals necessary for plant growth. More importantly, they are good sources of materials that create good tilth and texture in soil.
Deep down I harvested a bucket of black compost. It was fluffy, despite being pressed down by many pounds of matter above it. I could see bits of eggshell, but everything had been processed. I’ll mix it 50-50 with potting soil and use it to replant houseplants, giving them a fresh infusion of nutrients.
When I was a kid we jumped in the piles of leaves Grampy collected, but I think now, as a (considerably) heavier person, doing so might lead to broken bones. Still, I treasure those memories … and my leaf compost.
Henry is a UNH Lifetime Master Gardener the author of 4 gardening books. His website is www.Gardening-guy.com.
Going for a walk the other day along a public trail I was struck by the number of invasive shrubs I saw. Most trees and shrubs have shed their leaves, but burning bush (Euonymus alatus), Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) and honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.) still have leaves on their branches. Holding leaves and producing food by photosynthesis gives them extra energy to take over the world (or their world, anyway). This is a good time to pull a few of these out because many are very visible right now.
Why bother, you might ask? Because these invasive plants which come from the China or Japan have no natural enemies here. Left alone, they can take over the landscape, outcompeting our native wildflowers and understory shrubs, although that may take decades. In some places they have created monocultures by elbowing out other plants. Most birds, mammals and insects have evolved while depending on native species for their food and shelter. Do these shrubs provide food? Yes, but it is often not of the same quality as that of our native species.
Cutting down invasive shrubs will not necessarily kill them. Some invasive trees and shrubs react by sending up multiple new shoots from their roots. Instead of one buckthorn, for example, you suddenly have several in a circle around the tree you cut down. That increases the problem instead of solving it.
I have found that buckthorns can be killed without producing the root suckers if I double girdle the tree. By this I mean I cut a ring around the tree with a pruning saw, and then cut another ring a foot higher or lower than the first cut. I cut through the bark and the green cambium layer, but do not cut into the heartwood. If I do this now, the tree will leaf out next spring and the following spring, but slowly die by the third year. Patience is the key. The technique allows you to slowly starve the roots – they can’t get any nutrition from the leaves. Many buckthorns have multiple stems, and you must girdle every one to kill the roots.
For small to medium sized invasive trees and shrubs, pulling them up is another option. I recently met with Gerry Hawkes, an inventor and forester in Woodstock, Vermont to try out a tool he developed to pull invasives (and do other tasks such as hauling firewood and moving large stones). It is a sturdy, 2-wheeled device that uses leverage to pull up a tree, roots and all. We pulled an inch-and-a-half buckthorn tree and a full size multi-stemmed honeysuckle with a trunk that was over three inches in diameter at the base.
The tool we used is called a Wheeled Post and Shrub Puller (http://
We looped a light chain around the base of the tree and then attached it to one of four notches on the puller to allow us to begin with the best mechanical advantage, which is 12:1. I pulled down on the handle using my weight and it lifted the buckthorn partially out of the ground. Then, to get an even higher lift, we reset the chain to a different notch on the front of the tool and I got the root system right out of the ground! Since this tool is on 16 inch wheels, I was able to roll the tree away with little effort.
I have also used a hand tool called a Weed Wrench that pulls small trees and shrubs. Unfortunately, the company that makes these tools has gone out of business. It was made in four sizes with a gripping mouth-part that clamps down on a trunk, and a handle that uses leverage to pry out shrubs. Two other companies are now marketing similar tools, The Uprooter (www.theuprooter.com) and the Pullerbear (www.pullerbear.com). From what I have read, neither would compete with the tool I tried last week for pulling larger shrubs and small trees.
I think that using mechanical advantage to pull invasives makes much more sense than using chemical herbicides. But I don’t have personal experience following up over several years with invasives pulled: will the scraps of roots left in the ground survive and re-sprout? It’s possible that they will. Still, I think that Conservation Commissions and Garden Clubs would be well served by investing in pulling devices to share with interested townspeople and using along public pathways.
There are no plant police. No one can tell you that your invasive shrubs must be pulled up. Nurseries may not sell them, propagate them or transport them. But I am working hard at removing mine. And even if you live in a city, it makes sense to remove invasive plants on your property. Their seeds may wash down storm drains, and end up in a wetland or river – and spread their genetic material.
Getting rid of invasive plants takes time. I recently chatted with a woman who removed all the burning bush on her property 12 years ago. She is still pulling seedlings that germinate from seeds deposited over a decade ago. But, on the positive side, pulling “thugs” gives you more room to plant other nice landscape plants. So go look for invasive plants now, and try to get rid of a few.
Henry Homeyer is a gardening consultant and coach. He speaks to garden clubs and civic organizations about many aspects of gardening. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website, www.Gardening-Guy.com.
This is a hard time for those of us who love to go to the garden to pick flowers to grace the table. We’ve had a few weeks of cold weather, and even the hardiest of flowers seem to have faded away. So what can a gardener do?
Think outside the box. We can pick stems of shrubs with colorful or interesting bark. We can snip off branches of evergreen trees. And there are decorative grasses and even some dry weeds that have interesting form.
Actually, I do have one thing still blooming: my witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana) shrubs are in their glory now that their leaves have dropped. They are remarkable yellow blossoms that consist of curly yellow straps. Their fall foliage is yellow and the blossoms appear while the leaves are still on the branches – and are easily missed. Now the leaves are gone and the blossoms are prominent.
Witchhazel comes in several species. There is a spring blooming variety, H. vernalis, that blooms as early as March. Some varieties of this species also have spectacular fall leaf color. The variety ‘Autumn Embers’, a spring bloomer, has great fall color. I have yet to try this species, but it’s on my wish list.
Most grasses and branches lend themselves to making big arrangements. I decided to try working with some to make something shorter as tall arrangements on the dining room table block my vision of a diner across from me. I cut stems of fountain grass (Miscanthus sinensis) which is well over 6 feet tall in my garden, but I just used the top 18 to 24 inches of each stem. They are in blossom right now, meaning that they display fluffy plumes above the foliage.
I also cut the bare red stems of red-twigged dogwood, which is also known as red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea). This is a plant that I cut to the ground each spring. New growth has bright red bark that seems to get brighter in the winter. In the wild it lives in wet places, and I grow it in moist soils, but it will grow in ordinary garden soil. I cut it back to keep the size in check, but mostly to get bright red color. Other varieties of the species produce yellow stems.
So I had bright red in the vase, and tawny beige grasses. I needed some greenery. I have lots of Canadian hemlock, but have found that the needles do not hold on well. White pine would work, but I wanted a different look. I cut a few stems of a hellebore, a perennial flower with evergreen leaves. The stems rise up a foot or so, then send out horizontal clusters of shiny green leaves, which seemed perfect. The leaves did well for a couple of days, then got droopy.
Other plants that often have good looking leaves at this time of year include European wild ginger (Asarum europaeum), dead nettle (Lamium spp.), myrtle or periwinkle (Vinca minor) and pachysandra (Pachysandra spp.). And although a vase full of just leaves may not be interesting in summer, a little greenery in a low bowl with a few stones is not bad now.
Of the leaves mentioned above, pachysandra is the best: it will last all winter in a vase, rooting and looking perky. Pick some now for use all winter.
In my vegetable garden I still have a number of plants that might also look good in a vase. Kale comes in a variety of colors and leaf types. All do well in a vase, and purple kale can be very striking. Mint also holds up for several days in a vase – and you can nibble on the leaves.
If you grew last winter’s amaryllis outdoors in a pot all summer, (hoping it might re-bloom for you this year), now is the time to give some tough love. You need to stop watering it, and let the leaves yellow and die. Cut off the leaves and keep it in a cool dark place for six weeks. It needs that dormant time if it is to re-bloom.
I usually take my amaryllis out of its pot, shake off any soil, and put it in a brown paper bag. Then I store it in my basement, which is between 45 and 55 degrees at this time of year, which is perfect. After 6 weeks I re-pot it and bring it up into the warmth of the house, but keep it out of direct sunshine for a while. Date the bag so you will know when to bring it into the light.
If you want to be sure of having a blooming amaryllis for the holiday season, go buy one now. They generally come with all you need: pot, potting soil, instructions. Don’t overwater it as the bulbs can rot. And this advice: bigger, more expensive bulbs are worth the money. The cheap ones you can get in a Big Box store will bloom, but you will probably just get one bloom stem, not two, and the blossoms will generally not be nearly as dramatic, nor be as numerous. I’ve learned the hard way.
Winter is breathing down our necks. I’m using the woodstove almost every day. And although I get a few things from my garden to put in a vase, I like to visit my local florist and buy some real flowers, too. If you’re on a limited budget, ask your florist for flowers that will last well in a vase. We gardeners all need flowers- even winter!
Henry is a garden consultant, coach, and a UNH Master Gardener. His web site is www.Gardening-guy.com.
As I calculate it, I’ve been gardening for 66 years – or at least hanging out in gardens. I have memories of being in the garden with my grandfather, John Lenat, when I was three. Technically I was “helping” Grampy, though my role was probably limited to things like tossing weeds into his wheelbarrow if the weeds missed the wheelbarrow when he threw them. Still, I’ve spent a lot of time in the garden since then. And each year I still learn plenty in the garden. Let’s look at what I learned this year.
I haven’t grown sweet corn often, but these last two years I’ve had the use of a farmer’s field to grow corn, potatoes, watermelons, pumpkins and more. It’s been great fun to have pretty much unlimited space for growing anything I want – and enough space to grow food to give away. So I grew sweet corn.
Farmers say corn is a “heavy feeder” and they give it plenty of nitrogen, one of the three nutrients found in chemical fertilizers. Nitrogen drives green growth and makes plants get big, fast. Inadvertently I did an experiment with my corn: half got supplemental nitrogen, half did not. It wasn’t a planned experiment: I had some bagged organic fertilizer, one called Pro-Gro, and gave it half my corn. Then I ran out of fertilizer and said to myself, “This is good rich soil, I’m not going to go back home (6 miles from the field) to get more fertilizer. It’ll be fine.”
The difference was dramatic: the corn that got fertilizer was big and produced nice corn. The other? Scrawny with small ears barely worth picking. Even those dang raccoons ignored it, mostly.
I had not grown watermelon in 30 years, as I had decided that I live too north to make it worthwhile. But our local farmstand grows nice small watermelons, and since I had the space, I decided to give some a try. I bought a 4-pack of plants in May, planted them in early June, and got a couple of watermelons from each plant.
Here’s what I learned: watermelons don’t take up so much space, or at least not the mini-melons. My melon sent out two vines each, and I directed them in opposite directions, running down the row. They grew up to 20 feet, but the leaves were relatively small, and they just went by other plants in the row without troubling them. That meant that I found melons in with the summer squash, but I didn’t mind.
Deciding when to pick the watermelons was, at first, challenging. The variety I grew (probably one called ‘Sugar Baby’) produced nice 6- to and 8-inch watermelons. I was told by a local farmer that ripe watermelons should sound hollow when tapped. The first one I picked was pink inside, not red, and clearly needed more time on the vine. We ate it anyway. But I learned to be patient. Watermelons don’t go mushy if you don’t pick them, or get tough and bitter. They just get sweeter, and wait patiently for you. The rest were all wonderful, and I shall grow them again.
A friend visited Monticello last year, and bought me some seeds, including sesame seeds. I planted some indoors last spring, and planted them in the ground in early June. I remember from my Peace Corps days in West Africa that sesame was a big plant, so I left plenty of space for these. I didn’t need to. Mine got no taller than 2 feet tall, and each plant produced perhaps 50 small seed pods. If you want a supply of sesame seeds, you need lots of plants. I won’t bother to do it again.
This past winter I read that tomatoes produce better if you grow them without added fertilizer. In the past I’ve always added both compost and bagged organic fertilizer in each planting hole. This year I did not add fertilizer and, as predicted, did not get those 6-foot tall plants I am used to. I got smaller plants, but they produced smaller loads of tomatoes, too. Next year I will use fertilizer again – but maybe less than the handful I usually toss in the planting hole.
I don’t normally grow celery. It tends to be tough, stringy, and attract slugs. Instead I grow celery root which is also called celeriac. Celeriac is a related plant that produces a big bulb-like root that tastes like celery when grated into soups and stews. I start it by seed in March, and grow it in full sun in soil that does not dry out.
This year I forgot to plant any seeds, so bought two 6-packs of started plants. But one of the 6-packs was celery, not celeriac. I didn’t notice the difference until mid-summer, as the leaves are similar. The celery was better than I had remembered: not the big stalks one finds at the grocery store, but reasonably sized and not too stringy. And the slugs? They ate some, but were not awful. What did I learn from this? Always start your own seeds if you want to be sure to get what you want.
Every year is different, and every year I learn from my mistakes and experiments. Maybe if I reach 100 years old I’ll know it all. I hope not!
Henry is a UNH Master Gardener living in Cornish Flat, NH. Reach him at email@example.com. His website is www.Gardening-Guy.com.