I live in a Zone 4 location. That means that during an average winter the temperatures will dip down to between minus 20 and minus 30 degrees. So far I’ve recorded temps in the low twenties – below zero. Balmy? No, but still in the normal range for my climatic zone.
Trees, shrubs and perennial flowers can be damaged or killed if the temperatures get too cold, especially if the temperature stays low for a number of days, or if there is a strong cold wind. Snow cover is good, as it serves as a blanket over the roots. We’ve had a long run of cold days, and we’re all shivering a little, even our plants.
The US Department of Agriculture rates each state with a zone depending on averages. These zones reflect the average extreme minimum temperature over a 10 year period as follows: Zone 3: -40; Zone 4: -30; Zone 5: -20; Zone 6: -10; Zone 7: 0 degrees Fahrenheit. If you don’t know your climatic zone, Mrs. Google will show you a Plant Hardiness Zone map covering your area, just ask her.
So what is good about cold times? As my late sister, Ruth Anne Mitchell, used to say, “Thirty below keeps out the riff-raff.” By that she meant invasive pests like the wooly adelgid that devastates Canadian hemlocks in southern New England. As the climate warms, they have been slowly moving northward. This year might knock back pest numbers.
Late blight, a fungal pest which can devastate tomatoes and potatoes, and can overwinter in Georgia but will not survive in New England if the soil freezes. Of course if we have a deep snow cover, the soil will not freeze more than a few inches. That is why you shouldn’t let “volunteer” potato plants remain in the garden next spring if you had any late blight last summer. Late blight can winter-over in potatoes, but not in foliage. Unfortunately early blight will survive our cold winters, and comes back every year.
I am sometimes grow perennial flowers that are rated for use only in warmer zones. I have plenty of Zone 5 plants, and even try some that are only rated for Zone 6. If they are well established and have the growing conditions that make them do well, they will often survive for several years before a very cold winter like this one does them in. But by then I’ve had several years of enjoyment.
Very few perennials last forever. Only peonies really can be expected to last for the rest of your life. I have one from my grandmother Lenat’s garden – and she died in 1953. My mom grew it, and then gave me a piece of it in the 1980’s. I hope one of my grandchildren will want it when I die.
You can take measures to protect shrubs and small trees from cold weather, but I don’t know that it really makes much difference. I know some people wrap their tender shrubs with burlap or synthetic fabric in effort to help them survive the winter.Last winter I wrapped a 2-year old kousa dogwood (Zone 5) with fabric. I did not get any blossoms, but there was no winter dieback from the cold. This fall I did not bother wrapping my kousa dogwood, but I did mulch the roots well with bark chips to protect the roots. It may just be too young to blossom, or need more sunshine.
I have a Japanese red maple (Acer palmatum) that is rated as a Zone 5 plant, but is now over 40 years old. When it was a young plant it often lost branches (or the tips of branches) after cold winters. I have never done anything to protect it from the cold, and I would rate it as a Zone 4 plant. The mother plant I Connecticut at my parents’ home is majestic. Here the cold has kept it small.
Roses are often susceptible to cold weather, but again, I have Zone 5 roses that have survived here. I cut them back in the spring to remove blackened or brown branches killed by the cold. Some years, particularly for luscious new roses, I use cut branches of evergreens to protect them. And some roses I buy and use as annuals.
Instead of putting your Christmas tree on the curb to be hauled away by the city, cut off all the branches and use them around roses or other tender small shrubs. I stand up the branches leaning them against a rose, forming a teepee. Does this really make a difference? I don’t know. It will break the wind, but the temperature can’t be much different.
I love winter and I cross-country ski even when the temperatures are in the single digits. I don’t fear for my plants when we have a cold snap. After all, if something dies, it opens up a new place in the garden for an exciting new plant. So stop your grumbling – unless it keeps you warm!
Read Henry’s blog posts at https://dailyuv.com/
This was a good gardening year for me. Although we had some rainy times, and some hot, dry times, overall the weather was conducive to good plant growth. As usual, I tried a number of new things. Here are some of the things I tried this year.
In the vegetable garden I grew a new potato variety that I liked a lot called “Magic Molly”. It is sold by Fedco Seed Coop as a fingerling, but if you let them keep growing, the potatoes get to be quite large. I love the color: a purple so deep it is almost black when picked. It is dark colored inside and out, and keeps its color quite well when cooked, so it is good looking in a stew. Some purple potatoes turn gray when cooked, which is less appealing.
I tried a new (to me) tomato this year, a hybrid from Burpee Seed Company called Brandy Boy. I met the CEO of Burpee, George Ball, at the Chelsea Flower Show in London. He told me that Brandy Boy was earlier than Brandywine, my favorite heirloom tomato, and that it had disease resistance that heirlooms don’t have. He said that the flavor was comparable to Brandywine, and I agree. Very tasty.
In order to get Brandy Boy this year I had to buy plants from Burpee – I only learned about it in late May, much too late to start plants from seed. But I’m glad I did, it gave me a chance to try it this year. Next year I will plant seeds indoors in April, which is much more economical. I checked my local nurseries for plants last May, but no one had any.
Over the years my vegetable garden has gotten shadier and shadier. Now I don’t get direct sun until mid-morning, and it gets behind trees in late afternoon. So I get about 6 hours of prime sun, with sun filtered through trees at other times. I compared notes with other growers who get bigger yields, and know that sun is a major factor. I would cut down the offending trees, but most are on my neighbors’ property. Sigh.
I planted strawberries last summer, the first time in years. Strawberries are short-lived perennial plants – three years is about all one generally gets from a planting. The first year the plants will bloom, but growers advise picking off all the blossoms so that the roots and plants will develop better. I did that, and anticipate a good crop next June.
Most strawberries are sensitive to length of day, and produce heavy crops only in June. But now there are day-neutral plants, and everbearing plants that will produce some berries all summer and into the fall. This time I chose a June-bearing variety as there is a new insect pest, the spotted-winged drosophila that is mostly present late in the season. Hopefully this fruit fly won’t arrive until my crop has finished producing.
In the flower garden I tried a new biennial, angelica (Angelica archangelica) and was delighted with it. This is a tall plant that produces globes of deep purple florets in globes about two to three inches across. Not only is it gorgeous, it attracts bees like crazy.
Like all biennials, angelica only blooms at the end of its second year of growth, then dies. I planted some of the seeds this year, but if I want it to flower next year I will have to buy another plant, and this one cost even more than a perennial flower. That leads me to believe it is not an easy flower to grow.
I was delighted to see that I finally have the proper soil for my sea holly, also called Eryngium. Sea holly has wonderful bluish flowers with spiky appendages around the globe-shaped blossoms that resemble globe thistle.
I have tried numerous times to get the proper soil to accommodate its needs, and finally got it to over winter and flower in year two. It hates good rich soil, and will only overwinter in sandy, nutrient-poor soil. So I created a spot for it by digging up some driveway soil and replacing my good soil. Bingo. It worked.
This was a great year for daylilies, which continued to bloom through much of September, even varieties that are normally finished in mid-August. I have no idea why they bloomed for such a long period, but enjoyed the show. You may not think of daylilies as cut flowers, but a scape (stem) cut with multiple buds will continue to open the buds and bloom, day after day. Just place the vase where it gets some good direct sun each day.
I planted 2 woody plants this summer: a catalpa tree and a shrub called button bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis). The catalpa will be a large specimen tree on a section of lawn that I always left for badminton. Given how little I play, I gave the lawn over to a magnificent flowering tree. It is 10 feet tall, and will get to be 40 or so, blooming in late June and into July. It’s fragrant, too.
Button bush, a native plant, likes moist soil and sun to part shade. I have plenty of moist soil, so planted one near my brook. It produces neat, round white blossoms in early summer.
I wish you all a great gardening year for 2018. May your veggies produce well, your flowers surprise you, and the Japanese beetles fly past your roses and land next door.
Henry is a UNH Master Gardener and the author of 4 gardening books. His website is www.Gardening-Guy.com. Henry blogs at www.dailyuv.com.]]>
Paperwhites are in the daffodil family in the genus Narcissus. There are many named cultivars, but most purveyors of the bulbs do not tell you their names. Commonly sold in grocery stores and garden centers, paperwhites are easy cultivate and quick to bloom. Some varieties will bloom in a couple of weeks, others take up to a month.
To get your paperwhites to bloom, all you need is a sunny windowsill, a dish or bowl that will hold water, and some small stones. Garden centers sell bags of attractive pebbles or chips of white marble that is suitable, or you can go out to your driveway and pick up stones.
Start by rinsing off the pebbles and placing them in a wide, low bowl. Then arrange your paperwhites so that the fat end of each bulb is nestled into the stones and surrounded by them. Add enough water so that it just “kisses” the bottom of the bulbs. You don’t want the bulb sitting in water – the bulbs can rot if they do.
I like to select paperwhites from the bin that have green sprouts already emerging at the time of purchase. They will bloom sooner than those that are entirely dormant at the time of purchase. If you buy them in a mesh bag, look at the bulbs carefully to make sure they are not dried out or are mushy when you squeeze them.
Paperwhites have a distinctive fragrance which can be quite strong. I love the sweet scent, but not everyone does. At this time of year any flower scent is a blessing, as far as I am concerned. The odor can often be smelled from quite a distance. One variety that does not have an odor is a bright yellow one called ‘Grand Soleil d’Or’.
Unlike the ordinary daffodils that I pot up in soil each fall and force to bloom indoors in the spring, paperwhites cannot be successfully planted outdoors, even if you kept them watered and green until the ground thaws. They are a Mediterranean species, and will not survive our winters. I don’t believe they will bloom again next year indoors, either. But that means there is one less chore to do.
Amaryllis is another easy, bright and wonderful flower that you can plant at this time of year for indoor blooms. The bulbs are available in grocery stores, Big Box stores and garden centers. Some come already planted in pots, but most come with a bag of planting soil, a pot, and a bulb – so some assembly is required.
The flowers of amaryllis bloom on a 16-inch stem and are shaped like Oriental or Asiatic lilies. The come in red, white, pink and striped varieties. None are particularly fragrant. As with most things, you get what you pay for. If you get the least expensive, smallest bulbs you will get one stem with 4 blossoms on a single stem. If you buy a bigger bulb, you will probably get 2 flower stems, one growing after the first has finished blooming. I’ve even heard of bulbs that gave 3 flower stems, but never had one.
If you are planting your amaryllis yourself, be sure that this big bulb is not buried up to its neck as that can encourage rot. Plant so that between a third and a half of the bulb is in the soil mix, not more.
If the soil mix comes in a plastic bag and is very dry, as it often is, moisten it well before you plant, but don’t get it soggy. Then keep an eye on it. Don’t let the soil mix get overly dry, especially as the flower buds are developing.
After blooming (and sometimes before), amaryllis will grow nice green, glossy leaves. And they can be made to re-bloom. If you keep them watered and in a sunny window until summer, you can put them outside and let them re-charge their batteries. Then, in the fall, put the amaryllis, pot and all, into a paper bag and place in a cool, dark place for a month to six weeks. Then bring it up in mid-November and begin watering. It should soon produce a flower stem.
In her book, ‘Making Things Grow: A Practical Guide for the Indoor Gardener’ the late garden writer Thalassa Cruso wrote that amaryllis hate to have their roots disturbed. I trust her advice and recommend any of her books. The one mentioned above really will help turn “Houseplant Killers” into “Green Thumb Mavens”. It is readily available at used book stores.
So get some paperwhites or amaryllis or both, and pot them up. Give them to friends and relatives for the holidays. You really can’t go wrong.
Henry is the author of 4 gardening books. His website is www.Gardening-Guy.com. Read his blog at https://dailyuv.com/gardeningg
So what can a gardener do? Prune. Trees and shrubs are dormant now, and it is fine to do some pruning. You can see the structure of deciduous woody plants easily now, as their leaves have dropped.
Before you start hacking away, be advised that shrubs that bloom in spring or early summer already have their flower buds ready and waiting for spring. So if you prune heavily, you will lose blossoms. On the other hand, if you have the time now and the plants need work, get to work.
In fact, most shrubs and fruit trees have both their leaf and flower buds. A few exceptions exist, of course: hydrangeas, summer sweet clethra, seven-sons flower tree, witchhazel and franklinia come to mind as woody plants that set their blossom buds on new wood in the spring for summer or fall blooming.
On a recent day I went out to do some radical pruning. I have a white lilac that had gotten too tall. It was 15 or 20 feet tall, and the blossoms were out of reach – and largely out of sight when blooming. It was like that when I bought my house, eons ago, and I cut it right to the ground back then, every bit of it. I didn’t care if it died. In fact I kind of hoped it would because it was so out of control. But the roots sent up new growth and if was a nice sized shrub a while. But life gets busy and all of a sudden it was too tall again. This time I was a bit more controlled.
I have been observing old lilacs to see what others have done with them, and how the plants have responded. At Saint Gaudens National Park I saw that the groundskeeper had cut back old lilacs to about 5 or 6 feet above ground, and that new branches had sprouted from dormant buds on those stems. I’m sure they looked pretty gawky for a year or two, but vigorous new growth had filled in. I decided to try the same.
So I cut back the lilacs, reducing their height to 4 to 6 feet. There will be no blossoms this year, and probably not next year. But there are a few root sprouts that have stems an inch thick, and those may produce blossoms. I just have to make sure those stems don’t reach for the sky.
You might wonder why my lilacs have gotten so tall. I think the answer is that they don’t get enough sunshine. There is a row of sugar maples only about 25 feet away from them, and these create more shade on my lilacs every year. Plants tend to grow tall and lanky if they are sunshine-deprived. They reach for the sun.
Elsewhere on my property that day I cut back my seven sons flower tree (Heptacodium miconiodes). This is a very vigorous fall-blooming tree I’ve had for 15 years or more. It can grow a shoot 6 feet in a year, once established. It is within eight feet of my house, and some of the branches were acting like voyeurs, trying to peak in my bedroom window. They needed some attention.
On one 10-foot stem I cut off all the branches. I am experimenting with a pruning technique called pollarding. This technique is commonly employed with English plane trees in Europe, and I like the look. Every few years trees are cut back to their trunks. The branch locations get scarred, and develop big lumps that then produce multiple new, vigorous branches.
Pollarding is particularly good for fast growing, weak-wooded trees. If those English plane trees were not cut back from time to time, the branches would likely break off from their own weight. That would be dangerous, as they are commonly planted along town streets and in parks. They are great shade trees.
I wouldn’t recommend cutting off all limbs on a tree and leaving just the trunk until you have tried pollarding part of the tree to see how it responds. I have read, for example, that one can pollard maples, oaks and beeches, but I wonder if they would perform well. They don’t grow as fast as some trees, and might take too long to develop an interesting appearance. Or try pollarding a small tree in a not-so prominent place to see how it does.
Fruit trees are most often pruned in late winter or early spring, but you can prune them now if you wish. We have some snow now, which makes ladder work more difficult, but a well-pruned apple tree can be a pleasant sight all winter. So have at it!
Henry’s gardening books are available from his website, www.Gardening-Guy.com. You may read his blog posts at https://dailyuv.com/
There are two impediments to storing root crops for winter: maintaining the proper temperature, and keeping mice from getting at the food. My house was built in 1888 as a Creamery, or butter factory, and has a stone foundation – which will always make it possible for determined mice and squirrels to get in.
The building was built into a hillside and 3 sides are above grade level – which makes for a cold basement in winter months, as I only heat it when the temperature outside is below zero.
This year I built a cold cellar for potatoes that uses 22 cement blocks. Cement blocks are readily available and relatively inexpensive. Blocks that are 16 inches long, 8 inches wide and 8 inches tall generally cost about $2 each. In addition to the blocks all you need is a piece of plywood to cover it.
So here is what you need to do if you want to build a bin for storing vegetables. First, select a place where the temperature can be kept above freezing. Your garage might work, or a cold basement like mine. But you need to make sure it isn’t too cold, as you don’t want produce to freeze.
If temperatures drop below freezing during the coldest part of winter, you have a couple of options: you can carry your buckets of produce to a mudroom or unheated pantry for a few weeks, or you can add heat.
In an earlier version I used a drop light with a 75-watt incandescent bulb to provide heat in my storage bin. I kept an indoor-outdoor remote sensor in it that I could read upstairs, and plugged in the drop light when temperatures inside the bin dropped to 35 degrees.
Another alternative, and probably a better one, is to install a heat mat. I have one that is designed for helping seeds to germinate by providing a gentle bottom heat. Most heat mats are small, just big enough for one flat, but I have one is 48 inches by 21 inches and uses 107 watts of energy. It should provide plenty of heat for the coldest of times. These are available at garden centers or from Gardeners Supply Company (www.gardeners.com) on-line.
Don’t set up a cold storage bin on a dirt floor. The mice will dig under the fortifying cement block wall, and get to your potatoes and carrots. Build it on a smooth cement floor. You can build any size you want, but I made mine 3 blocks long (4 in the front) and 2 blocks wide. And mine is 2 courses of blocks high, so I used a total of 22 blocks. It is big enough to accommodate six 5-gallon pails, but of course you can make a smaller one.
Root crops store best with high humidity. Winter air in New England is very dry, so I put an inch or two of moist sand in the bottom of each bucket. I do not use plastic lids on the buckets because the vegetables are living organisms that breathe slightly. They need air circulation, too, to keep mildew at bay.
For a lid to the storage bin, you can use plywood. Three quarter-inch plywood would be best, as it is least likely to warp. But five-eighths or even half inch will work. I recommend placing a few heavy objects or extra blocks on the outsides of the plywood to weight it down and minimize warping. Mice can get in through the smallest imaginable spaces.
Bernice Johnson of Cornish Flat, may she rest in peace, once told me a funny story about an elderly and mentally impaired neighbor who grew a lot of potatoes. He had a basement that was full of mice and rats. He stored his potatoes in a pile on the dirt floor and placated the rodents by going to town once a week and buying as many packages of week-old donuts as he could. He’d stand at the top of the stairs and then throw down donuts to feed them, making them promise to leave his potatoes alone. And it worked, he claimed!
Even in a dark, cool storage bin, potatoes somehow know when spring arrives. So I try to finish up eating – or sharing – most of my potatoes by the end of March. But I will save some until June so that I can plant them and start next year’s crop with them. I once went 20 years without buying potatoes, though that meant I had none during the early summer months. When my first new potatoes were ready to eat, I felt like a king at a royal banquet.
You may reach Henry at PO Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746. Please include a SASE if you wish a reply by mail. Better yet, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You may read his blog at https://dailyuv.com/gardeningg
One of my favorite shrubs at this time of year is winterberry (Ilex verticillata). You may have seen the bright red berries of wild winterberry growing alongside the road in wet places, often in standing water. It favors wet places, but can be grown in the average garden. In the wild it is an understory shrub, one that grows in partial shade. It produces the most berries, however, in full sun.
As a landscape plant, the winterberry is best in fall and winter when the red berries are prominent. The spring blossoms are small and white, and hardly noticeable. These shrubs are either male or female, and you need one male for every 6 to 10 females within about a 50-foot range. So when you buy winterberry, plan on having several. Unlike puppies, you can’t lift a tail and know what sex you are buying, but have to depend on the nursery to label them properly.
When you bring cut branches into the house and place them in a vase of water you will notice that they regularly drop berries. There is a solution: spray with a clear lacquer. Last year I sprayed branches that I used on my door wreath, and for the first time ever, most berries stayed on until I took down the wreath. Previously some of the berries fell off every time the door was closed.
Evergreen boughs are commonly used for indoor arrangements, sprays, kissing balls and garlands. If you plan to harvest evergreen branches on your own property for this, be sure to use branches that will hold onto their needles. Balsam fir and spruce, commonly used for Christmas trees, hold onto their needles well even when not in a vase of water. But most of us don’t want to cut off branches if we have balsam or spruce on the property.
What most of us have growing in our woods are white pine and Canadian hemlock. White pines hold their needles, hemlocks do not. The hemlocks have short needles arranged flat along the stems; they have 2 white stripes on the underneath side of each needle. White pine needles are long and pointy, but soft. They grow in bundles of 5 needles (one for each letter in the word ‘white’).
Of the ferns you might see in the woods now, only the Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is suitable for use in a vase. These have leathery green leaves with leaflets arranged in an alternating pattern. Some think the leaflets resemble a Christmas stocking, with a toe or heel at the end near its attachment point. I do not. I think they are called Christmas fern because they are still nice at Christmas and other ferns have largely disappeared by now.
Christmas ferns grow in shade or partial shade, and prefer somewhat moist locations. If you pick some, do not completely defoliate an individual plant. Take a few stems from one, and then a few from others. These plants are tough, but slow-growing.
What else is green and will do well indoors? Ground pine (Lycopodium obscurum) grows in deciduous forest in many of the same places as Christmas ferns. It is not a pine at all, but a club moss, a group of primitive plants that fed the dinosaurs when club mosses got to be 30 feet tall. These poor relatives only grow a few inches to a foot tall, but have handsome foliage in winter. They spread by rhizomes or roots. Each plant has leaves that come from the central spine of the plant, and lie parallel to the ground – like little Christmas trees. Please be judicious in picking these.
Back to the reds: red-twigged or redosier dogwood (Cornus sericea), a native of moist areas here in the Northeast, looks good in a vase. The color brightens up considerably in the winter, especially on this year’s growth. If the town road crew brush-hogged the roadside this summer, the new growth on red dogwood will be very bright.
Of course the plant nursery business has been working hard and breeding the reddest, brightest varieties and touting each of them as the very best. But all are good, and are very fast growing – especially in wet areas. I favor pruning out at least half the stems each year to get new stems with bright winter color, and have been known to cut a bush right to the ground.
So don’t feel bad if you can’t afford big vases of roses at this time of year. Get outside and pick some nice things that will brighten the house.
Read Henry’s blog at https://dailyuv.com/
Actually, not all my presents will last. Some are edible presents. Each year, for example, I dehydrate cherry tomatoes, apples, pears and hot peppers. A pint bag of dried cherry tomatoes represents a lot of work – and love. First I had to start the seeds and raise the seedlings. Then plant, stake and weed the plants. Harvest when ripe, cut in half, dry for 18 hours or more, and then bag them up. A pint of these babies is about 240 dried cherry tomato halves. A delectable gift.
Dried apples and pears are easier presents. I have a kitchen tool that will peel, core and slice apples and pears. You skewer the apple, turn a crank, and it’s ready to use in a jiffy. Much less time consuming than cutting cherry tomatoes in half and arranging on a tray. And of course, a few dried apples will fill up a quart bag, and a good tree will last a lifetime. The slicer I have is called the Triple-Action Apple Machine and it’s available from King Arthur Flour (www.king arthurflour.com) for about $25.
As to the dehydrators, those are serious presents. I have 2 kinds, and like both. The Cadillac of dryers is the Excalibur. Mine has 9 trays, a timer and a thermostat. The hot air blows across the trays, so all dry in equal time. Mine, Model 3926T sells for around $300 (www.excaliburdehydrator.com).
For a more economical price you can get a NESCO American Harvester dehydrator. They come with heat and blowing units either on the top of the bottom of a stack of trays. Those closest to the heat dry first, so you have to keep checking them and moving trays around. But they only cost $130 to $150 from the manufacturer. (www.nesco.com). I like the dehydrator with bottom heat best. But they take longer and use more electricity than the Excalibur (1000 watts per hour of use versus 660 watts per hour for the Excalibur).
I spend a lot of time working outside when the grass is wet or paths are muddy. I like dry feet, and nothing compares with my Muck brand boots. I’ve had them for over 10 years, wear them nearly every day in spring and fall, and they are not even thinking of wearing out. Mine are 10 inch high slip-ons, green, insulated. Warm. Looking on line, I think it is called the scrub boot. They cost $60-70 a pair. Of course I bought mine on sale for less.
At this time of year I’m battling mice and squirrels that want to get in the house to find food and lodging. My old house has a stone foundation, so it lets them in, here and there. Recently I got something called, “Mice Magic” from Gardeners Supply (www.gardeners.com) which claims to repel them – avoiding the need for trapping them.
Mice Magic comes in sachets like tea bags that are very fragrant – with spearmint and peppermint. Each lasts, it says, for 30 days. And one only needs one in a room to discourage the mice. So I have them in my basement and in the attic storage areas that tend to accumulate rodents. So far, they seem to be doing a good job, and these would be good presents. A box of a dozen (item # # 8592441) costs $29.95.
Speaking of mice, I recently got a watering can shaped like a mouse – complete with ears and whiskers! This is a metal watering can for indoor plants that makes me smile every time I use it. It pours nicely and holds a nice amount of water. Available from Gardeners Supply for $19.99. (item # 38-315)
Every Christmas when I write this column I mention tools, including the CobraHead weeder. This is, simply, the best weeder in America. It’s a single-tined weeder shaped like a bent finger – or a rising cobra. It can get under weeds and grasses, and tease them out. Available at garden centers everywhere and most seed companies, it is also available on line at www.CobraHead.com for $24.95.
Other tools I’d recommend? A collapsible rake. These can be adjusted to open widely, to 24 inches, or closed down to just 8 to 12 inches. There are several brands, and prices range from under $10 to about $25. All metal.
Books are great for gardeners, too. This fall I attended a lecture by Thomas Rainer and bought his book, Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes, co-authored by Claudia West. It’s an interesting read, presents many provocative ideas, particularly for urban and suburban gardeners. They explain, for example, that we often plant gardens with plants that would never be together in the wild – they have entirely different needs for sun, water, pH – and we could do better planting those that have similar requirements. (Timber Press, $39.95).
Last winter I attended a talk by Celeste Longacre and bought her self-published book, Celeste’s Garden Delights: Discover the Many Ways a Garden Can Nurture You (available for $25 at www.celestelongacre.com). It’s a nice book that not only gives tips for growing vegetables, but also for storing and using them. I got some good tips from it, including a better way to store beets.
So Santa, I don’t really need anything this Christmas, but if you want to drop off a load of reindeer droppings, they’d be great for my compost pile.
You may reach Henry at email@example.com or by mail at PO Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 93746. Please include a SASE if you want a response by mail. Read his blog at https://dailyuv.com/gardeningg
Each fall I pot up daffodils, tulips, crocus and other bulbs for indoor blooming. Now is the time to do it. It takes a long time for bulbs to establish roots and get ready to bloom, come spring, so the sooner you do so the better. Most bulbs need three to four months before they are ready.
Most bulb packages will specify early, mid-season or late blooming times. When selecting bulbs for forcing, choose early-blooming or mid-season varieties. Species tulips like Fosteriana and Kaufmanniana are both early. The Darwin hybrids are early- to mid-season varieties that force well. Triumph tulips are also good.
Of the early daffodils my favorite is Tete-a-Tete which produces small gold flowers, 2 or 3 blossoms per bulb. These are readily available in grocery stores in early spring and I buy them already blooming in small pots for under $5. One of my favorite things to do with them is to put a pot in a rubber boot in the mudroom, their blossoms poking out of the boot. It always evokes a reaction from visitors.
So how do you force bulbs? Plant them in ordinary potting soil in pots and keep them in a cool spot that stays slightly above freezing, and never more than 50 degrees. I have a cold, above-ground basement that is perfect for that. But you can keep them in the garage or perhaps the bulkhead.
No harm is done if temperatures drop below freezing for part of the time they are getting ready, but no growth occurs when they are frozen, so keeping them above freezing is better.
Bulbs have everything they need to bloom already packaged inside. You don’t need to fertilize the bulbs when you plant. Each fall I clean out all the pots that had annual plants on the deck and save the potting mix in a big contractor bag. I use that potting material to fill other pots for forcing bulbs.
Mice can be an issue if planting tulips or crocus, though daffodils and alliums are of no interest to them. I cut squares of plywood large enough to cover any pots I use for tulips. I put a brick on top of the plywood to keep mice out – they can squeeze through incredibly small spaces.
Most gardening books warn against watering the soil mix in which you have planted bulbs. They say bulbs will rot if too wet. That may be true, but I’ve found that in winter my problem has been more with the soil drying out too much. Humidity is very low in winter, and the potting mix, which is peat-based, loses moisture quickly by evaporation. I check the soil once a month and water if the soil feels dry. One year I let the mix dry out to much and did not get many blossoms. Always start with lightly moist soil mix.
Clay pots may look good to you, but they can allow moisture to evaporate quickly from the sides of the pot. Plastic, fiber glass or porcelain containers are better for bulbs because they hold the moisture of the potting mix, minimizing water loss.
So how close can you plant your bulbs? Basically as close as you want. I have some nice Italian pots that I use each year for forcing. They are rectangular, roughly 14 inches long, seven inches wide and six inches deep. I put 8 to 10 bulbs in each one. In a 10-inch round pot I put 10 daffodils. An inch or two between bulbs is fine.
Most pots do not allow the same planting depth you would have outside. Instead of 6 inches of soil covering a tulip or a daffodil, two or three inches is fine. I put a thick layer of soil in the bottom of the pot, then arrange the bulbs on it. I push down on each bulb to set if firmly in place, and then cover with soil mix. A light watering is good after patting the top of the soil to firm it up a bit.
If you do have a deep pot – 10 inches or so – you can plant 2 layers of bulbs. Plant daffodils near the bottom of the pot, add soil mix, and then add some small bulbs like crocus or snowdrops near the soil surface. Just leave a little more space between the small bulbs than you might otherwise so that the daffodils can grow up between them.
How do you know when your bulbs are ready to bring into the warmth of the house? Make a tag for each pot that tells you what is planted, and when it was planted. Eight to twelve weeks is fine for daffodils, and 16 weeks for tulips. But look at the pots. If buds are up and craving light, bring them up a little early if you wish. But never bring tulips up before the end of February or they won’t bloom.
Winter is often a hard time for gardeners. We crave working in the soil and seeing things grow. Forcing bulbs indoors is one way we can satisfy our need to have flowers – even with snow on the ground.
You may reach Henry at PO Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746. Please include a SASE if you want a written reply. Better yet, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You may read his blog posts at https://dailyuv.com/
Shasta daisies tend to die out if they are not divided every 3 to 5 years. And you probably have seen iris with a big dead section in the middle of a clump. It’s my belief that the center dies out because the plants have used up all the needed minerals in the soil. This starts in the middle where the original plant began its life.
Why bother digging up and dividing flowers? Some develop into huge clumps that overwhelm a garden bed, or elbow out nice plants next to them. This is particularly true for plants that spread by root like beebalm (Monarda didyma), common orange daylilies and obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana). Those plants can be quite aggressive.
Other plants, heavy-feeders, need to be divided in order to enrich their soil. Once a year I generally sprinkle some slow-release organic fertilizer like Pro-Gro or Garden Tone over Siberian iris to help replenish minerals that get used up. This minimizes the need to divide and re-plant. But digging up and adding compost and fertilizer will help considerably to re-energize a plant.
Here is what I do: I use a garden fork or drain spade (an extra-long spade) to loosen up the roots of a plant by sliding it in under the plant at a 45 degree angle and prying upward. Some plants – daylilies and Siberian iris, for example, hold on tightly. Others, like Shasta daisies and bearded iris have roots near the soil surface and come up easily. You may have to go all around the perimeter with your fork, or just on 2 sides.
I lift the plant out of the ground and place it in a wheelbarrow or on a tarp to minimize soil loss and messiness. Then I use my hands, a shovel or a sharp serrated knife to divide the plant. I like to just split it into several smaller chunks with my hands if possible. But a big chunk of Siberian iris will not pull apart, so cutting through the roots is necessary. I know that seems brutal, but the plant will survive nicely.
If you have invasive weeds or perennials growing near the plant you are dividing, you should be very attentive to the roots. Know the color and texture of goutweed roots, for example. If you see even a smidgen of goutweed root in with the plant you are dividing, STOP! You don’t want to move it to a new area of your garden.
If you are receiving plants from friends, always ask if they have invasives. I got goutweed from a dear friend who kindly gave me some iris – with goutweed roots mixed in. Twenty years later I am still fighting a losing battle with that goutweed.
If you think there might be roots of an invasive plant, either throw it out or bare-root it. Bare-rooting a plant means removing all the soil from the root mass. I do this with a sharp stream of water from my hose. It’s a messy procedure, but getting rid of the soil will allow you to see what roots are part of the plant you want, and what else may be mixed in. Most invasives have distinctive roots.
When you bare-root a plant it is important, when re-planting it, to make sure you get soil to cover all the roots. I will make a hill of soil in the planting hole and drape the roots over it. With my fingers I press soil around the roots, and cover them well. Then I water to get soil to fill in air pockets. Even though air is needed by roots, air pockets will dry out roots, damaging them.
After your plants are lovingly tucked in for the winter, spread some mulch over them. This will slow the soil from freezing, and give the plant more time to establish its roots. I like chopped leaves or pine needles, but chopped bark mulch is fine, too.
When you are cleaning up your flower beds this fall, think about cutting back annual flowers instead of pulling them. If you pull a big sunflower or zinnia, you are leaving an open space that will practically invite weed seeds to infiltrate your garden. If you leave the roots and a little stem, those may decompose over the fall and spring and add organic matter to your soil. And if your flower bed is on a slope, even a gentle one, a bare spot of soil will allow heavy rains to wash off some of your precious topsoil. You can pull those roots when you are ready to plant next spring.
This is also a good time to dig up and get rid of plants that you don’t like, are too aggressive, or are just not thriving. You don’t have to keep every plant. If you don’t like it, get rid of it!
Cold weather is on the way, so if you need to divide plants, you’d better get going!
You may reach Henry at email@example.com or by mail at PO Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 93746. Please include a SASE if you want a response by mail.
How do I avoid pests and diseases? Give plants what they need for optimal growth. Plants growing in great soil with appropriate amounts of sun and moisture are generally healthy plants. It has been scientifically proven that healthy plants are less attractive to pests and diseases.
A corn plant that is pumped up with chemical fertilizer, for example, is more attractive to corn borers than one has been raised organically and had its soil amended with manure.
I attended a lecture by Dr. Larry Phelan of Ohio State University in which he presented results of trials comparing conventional corn with organic corn. His data was convincing. Yes, chemical fertilizers can produce big yields, but excess nitrogen from chemical fertilizers will attract borers.
Then there is the problem of tomato hornworms. These nasty, aggressive critters are a real problem for some gardeners, but I have not seen one in my tomato patch in years. Why? I’m not sure, but the last time I saw one, it was being parasitized by small wasps.
If you see what look like grains of rice on a tomato hornworm, they are being attacked by a braconid wasp. The “rice” grains are larvae that are slowly sucking the hornworm dry. If you see this happening, don’t kill the hornworm. Just remove it (wearing gloves) and carry it far from the tomatoes. The larvae will do the rest.
How can you encourage parasitic wasps to live in your garden? First, do not kill them – though they are not very noticeable. And do not use chemicals to kill other pests such as Japanese beetles or potato bugs.
I have a small “home” for solitary wasps attached to my barn. It is a box filled with bamboo tubes of different sizes, their ends facing out. These tubes offer shelter for insects and places where they can lay eggs or stay out of danger. I don’t see it used much, but I know that solitary wasps do need such places. Nature offers the best places, I’m sure, so if I don’t rake and manicure every inch of my property. A naturalistic setting offers many sites for good bugs. Mother Nature, left to her own devices, tends to have a balance of good critters and bad. I try not to second guess her too often.
But what about introduced species that are a problem with our crops? They can easily cause damage and get out of control. One such pest is the spotted winged drosophila (SWD), an Asian fruit fly that arrived in 2011. Instead of just eating overly ripe fruit laying on the ground (as most native species do), this one will attack good fruit on the bush. Mushy fruit (complete with bugs) is the result. Blueberries have been severely affected in some places.
I recently phoned Dr. Alan Eaton, the state entomologist for New Hampshire, to see if any progress has been made in controlling this pest. No, he explained, they are still in the learning phase at present. Early reports had suggested that early-ripening crops of blueberries and strawberries were less susceptible to SWD. But he told me that this year they were finding earlier and earlier reports of damage. And this year they had reports of SWD on cherries for the first time.
These fruit pests are just one twelfth of an inch in size, so netting (always a friend to organic gardeners) musts be very fine to keep them off our crops. Most commercial growers are resorting to chemical sprays. Me? I’m rooting for the birds and other insects to take charge.
So what can you do to reduce chances of pest and disease problems next year? Clean up your garden well this fall. Apple scab, for example, causes deformed, inedible fruit. The disease can be minimized by simply raking up leaves and fruit- right now. This year I took it a step farther and used a pole to knock off any apples left on the tree, and raked them up, too. Many of those left on the tree were clearly rotten. I’ve read that spreading compost under apple trees introduces beneficial microorganisms and may help control diseases, too.
According to Dr. Eaton, destroying vines and leaves of plants in the squash family – cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, melons etc. – is important at this time of year. Striped cucumber beetles over-winter in plant debris, so getting your garden clean is important. I put vine and tomato plants on my brush pile and burn it once snow has fallen, but you can also bag it and send it off with household trash. Composting is not usually an effective way of ridding your garden of these pests.
Remember: well-tended plants are less susceptible to diseases and less attractive to pests. I am always amazed at how healthy my garden is despite – or because – I use no chemicals – and have always used organic methods. It takes a while to develop a good supply of beneficial insects, I suppose, but get started!
Henry is a UNH Master Gardener and the author of 4 gardening books. He is available to give talks at garden clubs and libraries. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746.