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Kissing Balls



 

          At this time of year I need all the help I can get. Cloudy gray days do not make me cheerful. Days that end at 4pm do not please me. I counteract the dark with lights, flowers on the table, greenery (and maybe a little chocolate). This year I decided to make a kissing ball to hang from my chandelier in the living/dining area.

 

Kissing Ball

Kissing Ball

Kissing balls have a long history. During the Middle Ages villagers would hang balls of evergreens with a clay figure representing the Baby Jesus inside. Later, during the Victorian era, people would poke greens, particularly sweet-smelling greens, into apples or a potatoes and them and hang them in the house.

 

But they fell into disfavor, and mistletoe remained as the primary green hung in the house during much of the 1900’s. Mistletoe, of course allowed high-spirited youth to steal a kiss if a maiden was “accidentally” standing under the mistletoe. In this day of lawyers, no one wants to sell mistletoe because the berries are quite poisonous. But now decorated evergreen balls are back, being sold as kissing balls. I recently made one.

 

When I made my plans I didn’t think of an apple or a potato as the center of the ball. I bought a grapefruit and a large orange. But ultimately I decided I needed something longer lasting, and went to my local garden center to see if I could buy a ball of “Oasis”. Florists use Oasis to hold flowers and greens in place in arrangements while allowing them to absorb water. No one had balls of Oasis for sale, so I bought a 3 by 9-inch block.

 

I started the project by getting a variety of greens. I bought a small bundle of boxwood and cut branches of balsam fir, white pine, evergreen azalea and rhododendron.

 

Boxwood is loved by many gardeners: it is well behaved, slow-growing and has very small evergreen leaves that are a shiny green all year. They make great miniature hedges. I have avoided it because in the old days it was marginally hardy here. Now we have varieties that sneer at temperatures of 25 below and colder. Korean boxwood varieties such as Green Gem, Green Velvet and Green Mountain shouldn’t suffer winter burn or winter kill.

 

Oasis ball doesn't have to be perfect

Oasis ball doesn’t have to be perfect

Oasis is very easy to cut. I used a long serrated bread knife, but you could use any knife. I soaked the sphere in water for 15 minutes or so, rotating it a few times and holding it under water so the entire thing would be well soaked. Then I took an old fashioned wire coat hanger and cut out a section. I kept the top hook portion, one angled side and the bottom wire. I straightened it out with a pair of needle nose pliers, and pushed it through the globe. I then twisted the bottom inch of wire to a right angle, and slipped a big fender washer on it to help support the sphere once I hung it, and to keep the delicate Oasis from being damaged by the wire.

 

I hung the ball from my chandelier and began the easy part: decorating it. I cut pieces of greenery into roughly 6-inch pieces, and gently poked them into the Oasis. I started at the top, creating concentric circles of white pine, then boxwood, balsam fir, another layer of boxwood, then azalea and rhododendron, and finally finishing up with more boxwood. Once I passed the “equator” I turned the leaves so that the shiny side would be facing down.

 

I used my pocket knife to shave off needles of the fir (which did not pull off easily), and to remove any lumps in the stems. On thicker branches, I shaved of a little wood to make a thinner branch to poke into the Oasis.

 

At the very bottom I attached a bow made of red ribbon, wiring it onto the hook at bottom after removing the washer. That insured that the wire would not pull though the Oasis, which is very delicate.

 

It was gorgeous. A globe of green with a nice variety of textures and colors of green. All it needed was some red berries. So my dog Daphne and I jumped in the car and drove to the nearest swamp. I had put on my tall boots, just in case some wading was required. Little did I know.

 

Our native holly, which loses its leaves, is called winterberry (Ilex verticillata). In the wild it lives in swamps, but is also a good landscape plant with loads of bright red berries. It is dioecious, meaning it has male and female plants; if you want berries, buy a male to go with your females (one male can service several females).

 

I cut some branches for my kissing ball and was leaving the swamp when, with a crack, I fell through the ice and water filled my boots. If I’d been captured on camera I might have started a new trend –icy water in boots instead of a bucket of ice water on the head. I laughed. Later, I poked stems of red berries into the kissing ball. It certainly brightens up the room, and I grin when I remember getting those red berries.

 

Henry Homeyer lives in Cornish Flat, NH. His books are available from his web site, www.Gardening-Guy.com. Contact him at henry.homeyer@comcast.net or P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746.

Living Christmas Trees: Good Idea or Bad?



          I know people who say we shouldn’t be cutting down trees just to brighten our houses for the holidays. Trees are, after all, sequestering carbon and making our environment cleaner, greener, and all that. I say “Bah Humbug!” and will cut a fresh tree from my neighborhood tree farmer. But if you want to be a Greenie, here is what you need to know about using a live tree with the idea of then planting it outside after the holidays.

 

First know that chances of survival are only 50-50 or thereabouts. Planting a tree in New England in January is not easy. For starters, the ground may be frozen. And keeping a tree hydrated and happy in the house is a challenge, even for an attentive tree steward. But let’s see how you can improve your odds. I’ve never had a live tree in the house, so I spoke with Norm Longacre, of Longacre’s Nursery in Lebanon, NH for some helpful hints.

 

Potted Christmas trees looking for a new home

Potted Christmas trees looking for a new home

Norm said that you should think small. A six-foot tree will have a big, heavy rootball, and will be harder to move and harder to plant. Think three to four feet tall, maximum, and even smaller if you can. The best? A tabletop tree.

 

He said to buy a fir or spruce that has been grown in a plastic container, not one that is recently dug up or wrapped in burlap. Place the tree in the coolest part of the house – and never near a radiator or woodstove.

 

I suggest that you think where the tree will be planted after the holidays before you buy one. Too many times I’ve seen a huge blue spruce towering over a nice little ranch house, blocking out the sun from the big picture window. Why? Because the tree was small and cute when the owner of the house bought it, and he never thought about its ultimate size.

 

Balsam fir (Abies balsamea) is one of the classic Christmas trees. In the wild it will grow to be 45 to 75 feet tall with a spread of 20 to 25 feet. This is not the tree to place close to the house. There are a few cultivars that are supposed to stay small, but mostly such trees just grow slower than the standard varieties. In 40 years, a dwarf may no longer be a dwarf.

 

Blue spruce (Picea pungens) is another good-sized tree in the wild, 30 to 60 feet tall with a spread of 20 to 30 feet. There are spruce that stay small, I have read. ‘Blue Kiss’ is one that, after 40 years growing in Ohio, is reported to be only 8 feet tall and 10 feet wide. But that’s still enough to block most windows. So choose the location well.

 

I would buy a bale of hay or straw now and spread a thick layer of it over the soil at the site where you will plant your tree to serve as insulation. Between now and January it is likely we will have some very cold days. And unless we have a thick layer of snow, the top few inches of soil can be frozen solid by the time you want to plant your tree outdoors. Yes, you can break up frozen soil with a pick ax, but do you want to?

 

I would also buy a few bags of topsoil now and store them in a warm basement. Then if the soil is frozen when it’s time to plant, and you hack it out, you can backfill the hole with soil that is not in frozen chunks. You will want some bark mulch or wood chips to spread over the soil once the tree is planted, too.

 

Instead of keeping a live tree in the house for a month, the way many of us do with cut trees, think about having it indoors for just a week or 10 days. That will reduce the stress on the tree considerably. Keep the soil lightly moist, but not soggy.

 

When the time comes to plant your tree, be sure that you dig the hole the appropriate depth. Never plant a tree in a hole that is deeper than necessary. Look for the trunk flare, that part of the tree that would be above ground if growing in the wild. Keep that flare above ground and do not cover it with bark mulch. To do so is to consign your tree to an early death. The bark will rot if covered with soil or mulch, and the tree will decline in 6 to 10 years. Many trees come in the pot with the trunk flare covered with soil, so you may have to expose it when you plant. And don’t forget to water your tree after you plant it!

 

And what about all those cut trees we see for sale on empty lots, selling to people like me? They are a crop, like corn or beans. They provide a livelihood for tree farmers and are great for boon to our environment. I buy one every year and feel not an iota of guilt.

 

One nice thing about buying a cut tree that reaches the 10-foot ceiling in my house is this: after the holidays I will cut off all the branches and use them to provide some protection for less hardy plants that might be harmed by cold winter winds. I will layer them over perennials that are “iffy” in my climate, or use them to protect roses or other shrubs that might be damaged by the cold.

 

So go ahead and buy a live tree for the house if you wish, but please remember the words of Norm Longacre. “Don’t hold your nurseryman responsible if your tree doesn’t survive.”

 

Henry Homeyer is a UNH Master Gardener and the author of 4 gardening books. His Web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com.

Holiday Gifts for the Gardener



          It’s that time of year again: time to find the perfect present for Aunt Edna, Uncle Bob and everyone else we love. Gardeners on my list are pretty easy to buy for because there are so many wonderful gifts to choose from, including selections under $10 (Atlas nitrile gardening gloves, packets of my favorite seeds) to expensive coffee table books and wheelbarrows that cost $300 or more. Let me offer a few suggestions.

 

          Let’s start at the high end. One of my coaching clients this summer wanted some raised beds that were actually tall enough so that she wouldn’t have to bend over. She ordered some ‘VegTrugs’ from Gardener’s Supply (www.gardeners.com or 802-660-3500). These are wood growing containers made of fir that are about 6 feet long, 30 inches wide and 32 inches tall – about the same height as your kitchen table.

 

VegTrug

VegTrug

The VegTrug is V-shaped in cross-section and lined with a fabric that keeps soil from washing through between the slats. This container is deep and hold 380 quarts of soil mix – about 10 bags. We filled it with a 50-50 mix of compost and topsoil bought in bulk, and added some perlite and peat moss to keep the soil fluffy. It performed very well, growing tomatoes and eggplants in the middle, and shallow rooted things like lettuce and basil along the edges. At $249, it’s an investment, but well designed and it should last for years. Gardener’s Supply has a number of other kinds of raised beds. My client assembled her VegTrug in about an hour, and some of the others are even simpler.

 

Weeding is the least fun part of gardening for many, and anything that helps to reduce weed numbers is a good gift. A few years ago I got some rolls of weed mat that came with pre-punched holes spaced appropriately for growing tomatoes, or lettuce – or you name it. This is a woven polypropylene mat that the maker claims will last 10 years.

Garden weed mat

Garden weed mat

The mats come in 4-foot wide strips with evenly spaced holes in 8 different sizes and spacings. They block out light, keeping weeds from growing, while also moderating temperature and water loss. From 10.99 for a 6-foot piece to $30.99 for an 18-foot length. Made in Vermont, available from www.GardenMats.com or by calling 802-498-3314.

Each year I remind readers that in my opinion the best weeding tool made is the CobraHead weeder (www.CobraHead.com or 866-962-6272). This is a single steel finger, curved and sharp, that will get under weeds and lift them out, tease out grass roots or prepare the soil for planting. It is $24.95, including shipping. Made in America, too.

 

Watering well is important in dry times. Plants need gentle streams of water that can best be delivered by a watering wand. These devices have long metal handles with a rose (water sprayer) on the end. The best wands are made by Dramm, but many knock-offs are sold, too. Go for the best. Why? They have figured out how to aerate the water so that lots of water can come out, fast, but gently. My wand allows me to walk along and get water where I want it: on the ground, near the plants, but not on the foliage. Available at good garden centers everywhere. About $20.

 

Books are loved by gardeners. Designing flower gardens? An excellent book is by Julie Moir Messervy, Landscaping Ideas that Work (Taunton Press, $21.95). This is a good overview and introduction to the basics of landscape design, starting with a checklist of the atmosphere, activities and features you would like. It is simple and straightforward with lots of color pictures. Granted, the pictures are mostly of expensive houses and projects, but she gives readers an idea of relative cost of various options (brick walkways, or stone, or packed earth) by using 1 to 4 dollar signs next to each.

 

The New Vegetable Growers Handbook: A users manual for the organic vegetable garden by Frank Tozer (distributed by Chelsea Green Publishing, $27.95) is an excellent reference text for anyone who grows veggies. It has detailed growing information on nearly 100 different veggies and has great tips on practical matters such as how to avoid getting bitter-tasting cucumbers or how day length affects the size of your onions, and why you should plant them early in spring. Want to try new greens? Tozer tells you how to grow Komatsuna and Mizuna and Mibuna and more. By the way, Chelsea Green Publishing (www.chelseagreen.com) has lots of other good gardening and permaculture books worth looking at.

 

Record keeping is important if you want to improve your gardening skills and to learn from past years. The Moleskine Company (www.moleskine.com) makes many journals, including a gardening journal that offers 240 pages, including space to record your efforts and useful information such as hardiness zones. It has design grids for planning and adhesive labels for personalizing sections. It’s $19.95 and found at many bookstores.

 

          Santa Claus, if you’re listening, what I really want this year is another load of manure. Just have your reindeer drop a load of black garden gold anywhere near my vegetable garden. A pick-up truck load would be great or, if you think I’ve been a very good boy a dump-truck load!

 

Henry Homeyer has his own gardening books, signed, available from his web site, www.Gardening-Guy.com.

Forcing Bulbs

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



     I love to ski and snowshoe. I don’t mind shoveling snow and lugging in firewood for the woodstove the chugs along day and night now. But there are limits to my patience, and by March I’ll ready for green growing things and some fresh flowers. So I start lots of veggies and flowers by seed, starting in March and April. But I also force bulbs to bloom indoors in March. Now is the time to do so.

 

          Most bulbs are described on their packages as early, mid-season or late. Go to your local garden center and ask for bulbs that are early bloomers because they are the best for forcing. Buy daffodils, some tulips and maybe some small bulbs like crocus or snowdrops. You can plant these bulbs in large pots or even in your window box that is, by now, cleaned out and stored in the garage or barn.

 

           You will also need some potting soil and compost. I make a mix that is half compost, half potting soil for forcing bulbs. I don’t use garden soil because it can be heavy and often stays wet. Bulbs can rot if they are left in wet soil for too long.

         

daffodils being planted for forcing

daffodils being planted for forcing

I recently planted 25 daffodils in a window box that is about 30 inches long, 6 inches wide and deep. It was a mix of different kinds of daffodils. I prefer to get all of one kind so that they all bloom at once, but the mixed bag was what was available (and on sale).

 

          I filled the window box a little more than half full with my mixture of compost and potting soil and placed the bulbs, pointy end up, in the soil. Once I had them all in place I pushed them down more and filled up the box with more potting soil-compost mixture. Bulbs for forcing can be planted shoulder to shoulder, or nearly so.

 

 

                    In order to prepare bulbs for early blooming indoors, you will need a place to store them that is cold, but not as cold as the outdoors. Despite global warming, I still see minus 20 every winter, even if for only a few days. Bulbs planted in the ground have some protection against the cold, but if you were to plant bulbs in pots and leave them outside, the extreme temperatures would kill most. Bulbs left in a cool basement or garage will do just fine. Inside the bulkhead to your cellar might be the right temperature, too.

 

Ideally temperatures for bulbs used for forcing will be between 25 and 50 degrees, though colder temperatures should not be a problem (my basement often goes below freezing). Left in a warm location, the bulbs will grow green tops – but not blossoms.

 

You need to be aware that rodents like eating bulbs (indoors or out) – especially tulips. My basement has, most years, harbored mice and even sometimes red squirrels. In fact, I have learned the hard way that indoor rodents can – and will – dig up and eat tulips. So now I keep my pots of tulips covered with hardware cloth (a fine-mesh metal screening available at hardware stores). But wear gloves if you cut hardware cloth to size – the edges are as sharp as razor wire. Daffodils, on the other hand are not of interest to rodents as they are mildly poisonous.

 

      You can double your production of blooms by planting two layers of bulbs in a container. Plant big bulbs deep in the pots, add soil, and then plant a layer of crocus or other small bulbs above them. To avoid planting the little guys right over the big boys, you can mark the location of the deeper bulbs with straw from a broom. That way they won’t get pushed over as the daffodils come up. Or you can just take your chances.

 

Don’t wait until mid-December to start your bulbs, get on this project now. Daffodils take about 12 weeks of dormancy before they should be brought into the warmth of the house, and tulips do better with 4 full months. Planted now, they would be ready in mid-March. Little things like crocus can be forced in 8 to 10 weeks.

Forced flowers

Forced flowers

It is important to check on the bulbs you are forcing at least once a month, particularly if you have put wire rodent-proofing over the containers. I’ve had shoots get damaged by trying to grow through the hardware cloth. If the bulbs are sending up shoots, remove the wire mesh. I also don’t want the soil mix to get bone dry, so I check it and water a little if it is too dry. The bulbs will grow roots when first planted, and then go dormant if kept in a dark, cold location.

 

When it is time to bring up your potted bulbs into a warm place, let them wake up gently. My mudroom is good for starting them: there is some sunshine but it is cool. Then, once the shoots are up and green, I place the containers on my sunniest window sills – either east or west facing.

 

I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon, West Africa many years ago. There I could have flowers blooming outside every day of the year. It spoiled me, perhaps, because I still want flowers every day. Forcing bulbs is one way to have lots of blossoms when there is still snow on the ground.

 

Henry Homeyer is the author of 4 gardening books. His Web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com. You may also reach him by e-mail at henry.homeyer@comcast.net.

 

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Putting Away Garden Tools for Winter

Posted on Friday, November 14, 2014 · Leave a Comment 



By now most of us have put our gardens to bed. I’ve yanked the vegetable carcasses from my garden and piled the decaying bodies on the burn pile. I’ve cut down some of my perennial flowers, although I’ve left others to stand proud in winter and offer seeds to the finches and chickadees. I’ve pulled some of the weeds in my flower beds, and pretty much gotten them out of the vegetable garden. I’m in the process of chopping up the leaves on the lawn, and hope to rake them onto a big blue tarp on the next sunny day and use them as a winter blanket in the vegetable garden.

          What I have not done, and am betting you have not done either, is to get my tools ready for winter. It’s always one of the last thing I do before my annual hibernation. This is a good time to work on your tools.

60-year old shovel ready for annual  linseed oil treatment

60-year old shovel ready for annual linseed oil treatment

As a man of certain age – past 60 that is – most of my tools have wooden handles. Yes, I have a few new fiberglass-handled tools, but many of my tools were used by my grandfather and/or my parents before me. I treasure them knowing that 3 generations of sweat has seeped into the wood, giving the tools a nice dark polished look. That patina is enhanced by an annual application of boiled linseed oil.

          Late each fall I take some time to polish the wooden handles of my hand tools and sharpen the blades, where appropriate. Using medium to fine grit sandpaper I rub out any rough spots or potential splinters on the wooden handles. Then I polish the handles a little more with some fine steel wool and wipe them clean. Lastly, I use a paintbrush to apply several coats of linseed oil and let it soak in. That keeps the handles from drying out – and a well oiled handle rarely breaks or gives splinters.

          My father always painted some red “Rustoleum” paint on the metal parts of garden tools to make them easier to find and to identify them as his. I found one of his old shovels in the back of the barn this year and saw that the handle was dry and cracked – I had not used it or maintained it in years. I sandpapered the many rough spots before polishing with steel wool and the applying 3 coats of linseed oil. I just kept reapplying the oil until it stopped soaking in.

         Hoes and shovels work best when kept sharp. You can sharpen them on a bench grinder or with a rough file or a whetstone. I have a grinder with a stone wheel, but rarely use it – it’s too easy to take off too much metal. Before sharpening a tool, study the angle of the blade – hoes and shovels are only sharpened on one side (the inside) and all you need to do is mimic the original angle, drawing the stone or file over the blade in consistent, even strokes.

          A wire brush is a good tool for cleaning up the metal blades of tools – I use it to get off rust. I like to use a rag with a little linseed oil on it to oil the metal. Something like WD-40 would work, too, and even get off some rust, but I don’t particularly want to introduce chemicals and petroleum products to my soil next spring – even in small quantities.

          Most hand tools nowadays have plastic handles that require no maintenance, and edges of steel so tough that sharpening is not required. But it makes sense to wipe off accumulated grime with a moist cloth and get any dirt of the blades.

          Lawnmowers, chain saws and string trimmers can use a little maintenance at this time of the year, too. Even though gas stabilizers are sold, most small engine mechanics I have spoken to suggest just running your machines until all the gas is used up rather than introducing an additive. That requires some planning, especially for riding mowers that can hold lots of gas. But gas loses some of its oomph over the winter – the volatile elements evaporate and escape, so it is best of empty the tank.

          If you can tip your mower on its side to clean out the accumulated grass that is attached to the mower deck, great. I know that some mowers also have ports where you can attach a hose to blast the grass off (my riding mower came with one) but I find they don’t really do the job – especially if you don’t do it every time you use the machine. Even reaching under the mower when it is off and cold and pulling out the grass helps, or scraping with a putty knife. What you don’t want is accumulated gunk that holds moisture, causing your mower to rust.

          Cleaning up my machines and tools is not very high on my list of fun things to do on a Saturday morning. But I recognize that doing so will extend their lives and, for wood-handled tools, add to my enjoyment of them next spring. So have at it. Your grandchildren may use some of your tools one day – if you keep them well maintained.

Henry Homeyer is the author of 4 gardening books. His web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com. He lives in Cornish Flat, NH.

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The Under Appreciated Yellows and Browns of Fall

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



I took a walk this week along a country road and was delighted by the colors of the fall leaves. The reds –maples, largely – have fallen, but the yellows and browns are still on some trees and lovely. And once you develop an appetite for the less flashy leaves, you may want to plant a tree that will do”the late show” in years to come.

Red oak

Red oak

The oaks and beeches are particularly nice right now. Oaks hold onto to their leaves much later than the maples, developing a more subtle coloration: browns mixed with russet or carmine or maroon. Perhaps burnt umber. Worldwide there are some 500 species of oaks, but here in the wild forest, just a few. Seven are listed by Cooperative Extension as native to New Hampshire, but only two are common: northern red oak (Quercus rubra) and white oak (Q. alba). Additionally there are many pin oaks (Q. palustris) that have been introduced and used as good tough street trees. In fact, I’ve read that pin oak is the most commonly planted tree in America.

Oaks generally fall into two categories. Red oaks have leaves with pointed tips on their lobes; those with rounded leaf edges without any sharp points are considered white oaks. Red oaks produce acorns that only germinate after a cold period of 30 to 60 days in a process called stratification, while white oaks can germinate right away. The Washington oak, a white oak in Princeton, NJ, is over 275 years old.

Oaks, and nut trees in general, have tap roots that go down deep in the soil. White oaks really are best started by planting acorns, or getting a small tree at a nursery. By the time a white oak has a trunk that is two and a half inches in diameter, it’s too big to move. Pin oaks, one of the red oaks, have fibrous roots that are near the soil surface and can be planted or moved more easily.

Acorns have always fascinated little children (and me). They are shiny, smooth and shapely. They feel good when in your pocket. They have a little hat that stays on while on the tree, but falls off once ready to be planted. Acorns that are fertile always lose their caps, so don’t plant one wearing a cap.

Beech leaves

Beech leaves

Beeches (Fagus grandifolia) are also wonderful at this time of year. Like the oaks, beeches hang on to their leaves – some of the young trees keep their leaves until May, when new leaves push them off the branches. And although the fall color is yellow, never red, some will display stripes of green in leaves while the yellows develop. Eventually, they all turn brown and produce a nice sound as the dry leaves are teased by winter breezes.

Beeches have smooth gray bark that is splendid in winter. But many beeches suffer from a fungal disease which mars the bark and kills off older specimens. The trees are attacked by a scale insect that damages the bark, allowing a fungal disease called Nectria to infect the trees. According to a US Forest Service pamphlet, the scale insect arrived from Europe in the 1890’s and, like many foreign pests, had few enemies here in North America (it first appeared in Nova Scotia). These is no easy remedy if your beech trees are infected.

Another great tree for yellow leaves in the fall is the bottle brush buckeye (Aeseculus parviflora), a member of the horsechestnut family. I just planted one this fall because it has great spring flowers, will blossom nicely in the shade or part shade, and tolerates moist soil. I had just the right spot. The brilliant yellow fall leaves were a bonus.

My hybrid ‘Merrill’ magnolia has great yellow fall color, too. And if you get up close to the tree, you can see that it is loaded with small, bright red berries nestled in their pods. The buds for next year’s flowers are on the tree, too, and will become more noticeable once the leaves and seeds have dropped. The buds look like pussywillow buds on steroids.

At this time of year the weather tends to be a bit gloomy. Rainy cold weather is not much fun, and the sun sets by supper time. So what can a gardener do? Plant some acorns. My friend Joe Monninger of Plymouth, NH went out one fall about 10 years ago and planted a bunch of acorns. I called him this week to see how they did.

Ten years later- despite squirrels, lawn mowers and weed whackers – four of Joe’s acorns have grown to stand waist high. Not bad. He hadn’t done anything to improve the soil, he hadn’t fenced them to keep away deer. He just poked some holes in the ground and planted acorns. Even if he planted 25, he has four nice trees – and that’s not a bad return on his labor, if you ask me. If you plant some acorns, put one of those little white plant labels near each one so you will be careful to avoid stepping on them when young – or mowing them down. And in 300 years they might still be alive and producing acorns.

I believe in enjoying what I have. Take time, I say, to slow down and really look at the subtleties of nature and the garden. Red is not the only good fall color.

Henry is the author of 5 books. His web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com. You may send questions to him at henry.homeyer@comcast.net.

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Cold Weather Crops

Posted on Wednesday, October 22, 2014 · Leave a Comment 



        At this time of year I eat one of the “three B’s” from my garden every day: broccoli, Brussels sprouts or kale. All right, don’t get on my case. I know kale doesn’t start with a “B”. But it’s a brassica, the family that contains those other two, plus cabbage, rutabagas, cauliflower, kohlrabi and more. All are good cold weather crops.

 

      

Brussels sprouts

Brussels sprouts

In addition to surviving frosts, all the brassicas are healthy foods with lots of Vitamin C, soluble fiber and compounds thought to prevent cancer (though that is a little controversial). What you may not know is that boiling brassicas removes most of those cancer-fighting compounds, but steaming them or cooking them in a microwave dos not. Three to four minutes of steaming will cook your brassica nicely, but not steal many nutrients. But the best way to eat them is raw.

      

 

There are many varieties of broccoli, almost all are excellent. Arcadia is one that has done well for me, and is very cold hardy. I talked to my friend Chaz Meyers of Cornish Flat, N.H., who I think of as Mr. Broccoli. He and his wife, Jill Johnson, grow about 50 plants every year, freezing it and eating it all year. He told me that ‘Packman’ is favorite, in part because it produces lots of side shoots. He also likes ‘Waltham’ and ‘Gotham’ varieties.

Chaz recommends cutting the primary head of broccoli on an angle so that the stem, which is often a bit hollow, does not hold water (which might promote rot). He also suggests, if the summer is dry, watering your broccoli well after cutting the big head. That keeps the plant healthy and promotes the development of side shoots.                                                  

I once planted a little vegetable garden for a woman who didn’t know much about gardening. I planted two broccoli plants that produced magnificent heads in July. She ate them, with glee, and then pulled out the plants. Yikes! I regretfully explained that the most productive part of the plant are all those little “side shoots” that come after the main head. That, like the Energizer Bunny, broccoli keeps on producing for months. I’m still eating side shoots from plants I put in back in June.

Although broccoli are known for having little green caterpillars on them, mine have not had any this year – or none that I’ve seen. Maybe I’ve eaten a few. The best solution to the green caterpillar problem is just to soak the broccoli in cold water with a little salt in it before cooking. They will float up.

I dare say that my Brussels sprouts are perfect right now. Each is the diameter of a quarter- or a half dollar – and unbothered by any pests or diseases. I eat some every night for dinner: a dozen is just the right sized serving for me, so my six plant will keep me eating them for weeks. Brassicas are very hold hardy, and Brussels sprouts and kale will survive temperatures down to 20 degrees – or even colder. Frost helps to sweeten up their flavors.

Deer don’t bother my garden until it gets cold. Then they look for my Brussels sprouts and kale and broccoli. Once they waited until the night of December 24 to eat my Brussels sprouts, though that might have been the reindeer, waiting while Santa was inside the house. I recently took some preventive measures. I covered my kale with a scrap of chicken wire that I just draped over my plants, and then I surrounded the Brussels sprouts with some four-foot chicken wire. The broccoli will have to fend for itself – I’ve run out of fencing.

Kale is the perfect vegetable to freeze. Unlike spinach, it doesn’t get soggy when frozen. It keeps its character. I blanch it for a minute in boiling water. That kills the aging enzymes that would make it turn old and woody after just a few months in the freezer. When I take it out, I drop it into a sink full of cold water, spin it dry in my salad spinner, pat it dry with a tea towel, and put it in freezer bags. I suck out the air in the bags with a drinking straw. The straw goes into a zipper bag that is 99% closed, and I suck out the air. I snap the bag shut as I pull out the straw, and it’s ready to go in the freezer.

I know people that are gaga about kale chips, dried kale that is salty and crispy, the health-nut food to substitute for potato chips. I recently tried making my own but I’m neutral about them. Here’s what I did: I stripped the leaves off the central stem, and tore the leaves into pieces and put them in a big bowl. I coated them with a garlic and olive oil solution (I used 3 cloves garlic and a few tablespoons of oil). I sprinkled pepper flakes or nutritional yeast on the leaves and tossed some more. I added salt, but not a lot.

Then I put some kale chips in the oven at 150 degrees for 2 hours with the convection fan blowing, others in a food dehydrator at 135 degrees for 2.5 hrs. Maybe I needed to use more salt or oil, but I was aiming for a health food. And this tasted like something a little too healthy. Oh well. They’re crispy, but they’re definitely not as good as potato chips. Darn!

Eating the brassicas from my garden at this time of year is a wonderful way to transition to winter. I have food in the freezer from the summer, and root crops stored in the cellar. But it feels great to walk to the garden with a knife and cut something fresh for dinner.

Henry Homeyer is a gardening educator, speaker and writer. Reach him at henry.homeyer@comcast.net.

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Planting Garlic

Posted on Wednesday, October 15, 2014 · Leave a Comment 



Garlic is one of those magical flavors that give foods depth of flavor and the richness of another world. Italian food, French food, Indian food – these all include liberal use of garlic. Why the English decided on fish and chips and boiled dinners as their staples is a mystery to me. Maybe they can’t grow garlic. But I’ve been growing garlic for my kitchen for decades. It’s easy to grow and now is the time to plant it for next year.

 

Hard neck garlic

Hard neck garlic

Your first task is to find some garlic suitable for planting. You can’t just go the grocery store and buy some. Most commercial (non-organic) garlic has been treated with chemicals to keep it from sprouting. Instead, go to your garden center to buy some – or get a few heads of garlic from a farm stand or a friend who grows it.

 

Here in New England the recommended type of garlic is called ‘hard neck garlic’ and it survives our cold weather nicely. Soft neck garlic, commonly grown in California, is less cold tolerant. It is the type that can be braided and hung in the kitchen. Hard neck garlic sends up a stiff stalk, called a scape, which grows out of the middle of the bulb – a stiff neck, if you will.

 

Hard neck garlic generally has a stronger, richer flavor with more bite. It also comes in a wide range of flavors – just as different varieties of tomatoes and sweet corn have distinct flavors. Hardneck garlic is often classified as either rocambole, porcelain or purple stripe. Rocambole garlic has a tan outer covering and usually produces up to a dozen cloves per bulb. Porcelain garlic has a satiny white wrapper and tend to produce larger cloves with as few as four per bulb. Purple stripe garlic is one of my favorites – it is productive, tasty and generally a nice, plump size.

 

I like to say that everyone would be a gardener if growing all vegetables were as easy as growing garlic. There are just three steps to growing garlic: planting it, mulching it, and harvesting it. That’s right, if you mulch well it will grow well and you will never – or rarely – need to weed.

 

I grow garlic (and all my vegetables) in wide, mounded beds. Each bed is 30 to 36 inches wide, and mounded up 4 to 6 inches above the walkways. A short-tined garden rake or hoe is useful for shaping the beds, and to gather up loose soil from the walkways.

 

The first step when planting garlic is to remove any weeds from the soil. Then I enrich the soil by adding 3 or 4 inches of compost on top of the bed I am planting it in. I use a garden fork or my CobraHead hand weeder to loosen the soil and stir the compost into the top few inches of soil. Rototilling would mix the compost in deeper – good for drainage in a clay soil if you have it, but away from the roots of my garlic.

 

Rows of garlic need to be spaced 6 to 8 inches apart. Most years I plant short rows across my wide beds, but sometimes I will plant rows down the length of the beds – it really doesn’t matter which way you do it. I create furrows with a hand tool in the fluffy soil of my bed and sprinkle on some bagged organic fertilizer, then mix that in.

 

It is important to plant your garlic right side up. If you look at a bulb of garlic, you should be able to see roots, or where the roots have been cut off. The top of each clove has a slightly pointy tip, and the bottom has a small, flat scar. And of course, when looking at a bulb of hard neck garlic you can see where the scape grew. If you plant the cloves upside down, they use up a lot of energy trying to get started and grow toward the sun.

 

To plant, just push each clove into the prepared soil about 4 inches away from its nearest neighbor. The top of the clove should be 2 to 3 inches beneath the soil after you cover it up. Pat the soil with your hands to firm it up.

 

The last step is to mulch. I use mulch hay because it is inexpensive, but straw is fine, and should have fewer seeds. I put a thick, fluffy layer of hay over the entire bed – and about a foot deep. Fall rains and winter snows will compact the mulch to a 3 to 4 inch thick layer of mulch that should keep out all weeds – while allowing the garlic scapes to push through in the spring.

 

Garlic is ready to pick in July or August. The scapes will curl and dance as they grow, and are wonderful in a vase with flowers. The scapes are also tasty – you can chop them and add to stir fries or omelets. Store your garlic crop in a cool dark place for best storage. And don’t eat it all! Save some for planting your next crop.

 

I’ve been told that garlic has cancer-fighting compounds, and that it’s best to chop or press you garlic 10 minutes before cooking it to preserve the best effects. And it’s supposed to be good for keeping away vampires, not just cancer. Me? I find it necessary for a good spaghetti sauce!

 

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

 

 

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Planting Bulbs

Posted on Wednesday, October 8, 2014 · Leave a Comment 



This is one of my favorite times of the year. Trees are turning brilliant colors, food from the garden is in the larder, and it’s bulb planting time. Some bulbs have a bad reputation: tulip bulbs for example, are often food for squirrels, and their blossoms are often munched by deer. But I know that if I plant daffodils, I’ll get blossoms six or seven months later and nothing will even think about eating them. Daffies are sure winners.

 

Daffodils will thrive and survive in sun or part shade. I grew up in Connecticut in a house that had a nice wooded back yard and a path through it that was lined with hundreds of daffodils. Maybe thousands. They multiplied and survived and bloomed year after year.

 

The soil was a dark woodland soil nourished by decomposing leaves. There was good drainage – which is important, as bulbs can rot if planted in heavy, wet soil. Occasionally my parents would dig up some big clumps and divide them, but really, we did almost nothing and the daffodils thrived.

 

I called Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, a family-owned business in Virginia to talk about my experience with daffodils. Their catalog says daffodils need half a day of sunshine even after the leaves come on. Why, I asked owner Becky Heath, did those daffodils of my youth do so well in our woods?

 

 

 

Daffodils- A sure sign of spring

Daffodils- A sure sign of spring

Becky said that daffodils do best in nutrient-rich soil. Our soil was that. She also said that some types do better than others. There are more than a dozen categories of daffodils, and of these, the Cyclamineus group includes many of the most shade-tolerant varieties. These are not the classic daffodil: their petals lean backward, away from their trumpet – sort of like the ears of a dog with his head out the window of a fast moving car.

 

 

Becky also told me that daffodils in the Cyclamineus group also do better than other types of daffodils in wet, heavy clay soils. ‘Tweety Bird’, ‘Jack Snipe’ and ‘February Gold’ are examples in this group.

 

If you read a package of daffodil bulbs carefully, you will probably see that each variety is labeled Early, Mid-Season or Late. In the past I have always selected some from each time period. But Becky Heath suggested to me that I focus primarily on bulbs that bloom early because much of my property is getting quite shady – especially where I want to plant bulbs – and early bloomers do better in part shade than late bloomers. Examples of early spring daffodils include ‘Rijnveld’s Early Sensation”, and many of the miniature varieties.

 

Bulbs expend a huge amount of energy in order to produce flowers. Those bulbs need to be “re-charged” each year or they will decline and have less energy for blooming next year. They do this through the miracle of photosynthesis – sunshine on their leaves produces food for the bulbs. Leaves on early-blooming bulbs generally come up and get to work early in the spring – before trees have leaves. If a bulb can get the needed energy before the leaves appear, it will thrive. Many daffies still have green leaves through June.

 

That theory is supported by this: my snowdrops and Scilla and Glory-of-the-Snow have thrived and multiplied, even in shade. They are small flowers that come up in March, long before the maples have leafed out. They have done much better than the daffodils planted near them.

 

According to Becky Heath, another factor in the success or failure of bulbs is whether or not they are hybrids. Hybrids don’t self-pollinate and re-seed themselves. Those that are called “species” daffodils do spread and naturalize by seed, she said. Thus some of the older varieties do better than the “new, improved” hybrids.

 

 

Daffodil bulbs planted in a 36-inch oval hole

Daffodil bulbs planted in a 36-inch oval hole

Some gardeners plant bulbs one-by-one with a little tool that can dig a round hole when plunged into the soil. I find that hard work, and slow. I prefer to dig one big hole that will hold 25 bulbs or more. I dig the hole, add some organic fertilizer and scratch in some compost. I want daffodils to have about 6 inches of soil covering the bulbs, or less for the small bulbs.

 

 

After a long winter, I long for color. You may think of daffodils as just one color – yellow – but some varieties can offer white, orange, pinkish peach, and lots of variations of colors I can’t name. But whatever you choose, plant some bulbs now for a punch of color in the spring.

 

Henry’s e-mail address is henry.homeyer@comcast.net, or you may reach him at P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746. If you have a question, please include a self-addressed stamped envelope.

 

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Learning on the Road

Posted on Wednesday, October 1, 2014 · Leave a Comment 



I’m not much of a country music fan, but do love Willy Nelson’s “On the Road Again” – probably because I love to travel. Recently I’ve been on the road again, visiting friends and family in Pennsylvania and Ohio, traveling by car. Unlike Willy, it’s not the honkytonks or making music that interests me, it’s the public gardens, garden centers and private gardens. There is always something to learn.

 

'Fireworks'

‘Fireworks’

While in Pennsylvania I visited Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square. These are at the home of the late Pierre S. Dupont which have been open to the public since the 1920’s. The gardens are largely formal, with huge expanses of lawn, fountains, shaped hedges and trees, ancient tulip poplars, displays of perennials, annuals, wonderful long shaded walkways, experimental plots and even a vegetable garden. A new addition is an 86-acre meadow, allowed to grow up in wild plants including many called weeds by gardeners. Right now dominant species include golden rods, fall asters and tall grasses.

 

Meanwhile, at the home of friends nearby, I spent time in a smaller version of the Longwood Meadow. Lisa and Chris Brinton bought a run-down farm about 30 years ago and have been working on it ever since. For the past decade that included bringing back to life a few acres of field that had been farmed for corn until the soil was depleted. When they bought the place the soil was so poor that even weeds had a hard time growing.

 

What struck me about their meadow was the number of bees, birds and butterflies. The field had been allowed to grow up in milkweed, goldenrod and native grasses. Trees that attract wildlife had been planted or allowed to colonize. It was a slow process as they didn’t bring in new topsoil, they just allowed leaves and grasses to decompose where they landed each fall and winter. Slowly the land came back to life. Mother Nature was allowed to reclaim the land.

 

Goldenrod gets a bad rap from most gardeners, but there are some varieties that are well mannered and beautiful at this time of year. I visited North Creek Nursery in Landenberg, Pennsylvania .This wholesale nursery grows hundreds of kinds of native plants, including half a dozen different kinds of goldenrod. Unlike the 5 to 6 foot giants that try to muscle their way into my gardens, they had some nice smaller varieties of goldenrod that I plan to grow.

 

 

Solidago caesia

Solidago caesia

Among their goldenrods there is an 18 to 36-inch tall shade-loving goldenrod, Solidago caesia, that I grew for some years before it was weeded out by a well-meaning helper. It’s hardy to Zone 4 and it thrives in dry shade. The small blossoms appear all the way up the stems. I also loved ‘Fireworks’ (a variety of Solidago rugosa). It stands about 3 feet tall, and prefers average to moist soils in full sun to half shade. Its blossoms are distributed along the stems, which arch out from this clump-forming perennial.

 

 

Of the various ornamental grasses I saw in the trial gardens at North Creek, my favorite was a little blue stem (Schizachyrium scoparium) called ‘Standing Ovation’. It is a North Creek introduction that is said to stand up well all year and at this time of year is a handsome reddish purple. It is hardy to Zone 3, meaning it will survive even our coldest winters.

 

Visiting friends in Athens, Ohio I liked the way my friends had terraced their gardens – without spending a fortune. Stone walls are great for creating terraces, but many of us cannot afford to make the investment. My friends used cement blocks that came with faux-stone fronts. The blocks stack nicely and lay flat, and hold back the soil to create level gardens. I have never worked with landscape blocks of this sort, but see that they are a good building material that is easier to work with than the irregular sizes and shapes of real stone.

 

Spicebush

Spicebush

Also in Ohio I saw spicebush (Lindera benzoin), a native understory shrub that has flavorful leaves and seeds. At the farmers market in Athens I bought some dried leaves for tea, and then saw it growing in the woods at my friends’ house. The bright red berries are very attractive right now, and I am told they can be used to flavor gin or as a substitute, dried and ground, for allspice. Birds love the seeds, robins in particular, and strip the berries in the fall when other foods become scarcer. Spicebush is a favorite food plant of two butterflies: the spicebush swallowtail and the promethea silkmoth. Spicebush is hardy to zone 4, and I definitely want to plant one.

 

Pawpaw fruit

Pawpaw fruit

In both Ohio and Pennsylvania I got to eat the fruit of the pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba). Pawpaw is a native fruit tree with fruit that is flavored somewhat like a cross between a banana and a mango. The flesh is mushy, and seeds are large. It is hardy to Zone 4, though not commonly grown in New England. I got a couple of small pawpaw trees early this summer, and one day maybe I’ll get fruit from my own trees.

 

 

 

 

Being a serious gardener means wherever I go I’ll have something interesting to see – and learn about.

 

Henry is the author of 4 gardening books. His Web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com. Contact him at henry.homeyer@comcast.net.

 

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