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.
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.
Fall is hard upon us, or at least here, in Cornish Flat. I know I should “toughen up” and ignore the cold, but I admit it here: I had my first fire in the wood stove recently. It felt great on a raw, rainy night. “Real” New Englanders never admit to turning on the heat or starting a fire until Halloween or later. Not me. And I’m looking at fall chores outside, too. Chief among them is planting trees and shrubs.
There is disagreement among experts as to the best time to plant trees. Some like spring, saying roots have a longer time to get established before winter. Other say no, if you skip a week or two of watering in the heat of August, you can damage roots or even kill a tree. Fall is safer, they say, because the weather is cooler and often rainy. Experts explain that roots grow and extend in fall, even after leaf drop – right up to the time the ground freezes. That last argument makes sense to me, so I’m in the “plant trees in fall” camp.
Trees sold in nurseries are often grown in fields like corn – row after row of maples, birches and oaks. Then they are lifted out of the soil and plunked into plastic pots. Those pots are then filled up with a potting mix but little or no regard is paid to the placement of the seedling in the pot. Workers don’t seem to know or care that it’s important that the “trunk flare” is on the surface of the potting mix – not buried 3 to 6 inches below the surface. This often causes trouble later on.
I recently planted a 10-foot tall Merrill magnolia for a client. It came in a plastic pot that was about a foot deep and wide. One of the first tasks I did was to dig around in the planting mix to find the trunk flare. Trees in nature – or well planted in the landscape – don’t look like telephone poles at the ground’s surface. Instead, the trunk flares out, displaying above ground “roots” that stabilize the tree in high winds. But even a large tree in a pot may not show much flare.
Here’s the problem: If the flare is covered up, the bark will be covered by soil and will eventually rot. The growing layer beneath it (the cambium) will be ruined – and the tree will decline and die. But it’s a slow process, taking 6 to 10 years. Sometimes more. Look for tip die back – trees that lose their leaves at their tops long before the rest of the leaves. Those are trees that are not doing well, and may have trunk flares covered by soil or mulch. Remove the soil until you can see the trunk flare, and you can save the tree.
At planting time you need to figure out what was above ground while the tree was growing in the ground, and clear soil off it before planting. You might be misled by little roots growing out of the trunk flare if the tree has been in the pot for a year or more. Trees in nurseries are watered from above, so trees in pots grow roots at the surface of the pot. But you can disregard those roots, or cut them off. Use your fingers to loosen soil around the base of the trunk and expose the trunk where it flares out. Then you are ready to plant.
Many experts advise digging a hole that is three times as wide as the pot it came in. I like 4 or 5 times the width of the root ball. The idea is create a zone around the planted tree that has nice loose, fluffy soil that will allow fine roots to penetrate it. But the depth should just be the depth of the root ball, not more. You want the root ball to sit on unexcavated soil so that it doesn’t sink down deeper after a few rains or waterings.
What do you do if planting on a hillside? You must create a level terrace for the tree by cutting into the bank and/or filling up the lower side with fill. Generally it is better to cut into a hillside and re-grade the soil.
Once the hole is dug, remove the tree from the pot and place it in the hole. If you place a tool handle over the hole you can easily see if the hole is the right depth. Be sure the bottom is flat and the tree is vertical, not leaning. Look at it from 2 sides to see if it is straight, and if the best side is showing forward.
I tease out the roots on the sides and bottom of the root ball to loosen them up before filling the hole. Then I refill the hole, using the same soil I dug out – minus the rocks. It’s okay, according to me, to add a little compost or rich topsoil to the fill if planting in poor soil. But don’t fill the hole just with topsoil and compost. If you do, the roots may never extend past the hole you have dug – like a tree growing in a bathtub.
Mother Nature doesn’t use fertilizer, and I don’t either. I don’t want to push a tree to grow fast in its first year, which fertilizer would promote. I want it to get established, and to send out roots looking for water and minerals.
Planting a tree is not rocket science. Just expose the trunk flare before you put it in the ground, dig a nice wide hole, and keep it watered for the first year of its life. Planted right, your tree should out last you!
The fall equinox arrives on September 23 this year. On that date, days and nights are of equal length, but with each subsequent day the nights get a little bit longer and we begin our descent into winter. For many gardeners, the shortening days are not welcomed. I try to look at the positive side: we all need a break from weeding and working on our gardens. It’s not time to hang up our tools and put them away, but we can start to slow down.
My vegetable garden did well this year. We had plenty of rain – but lots of sun, too. Often the rain was torrential – which is not ideal – but it most often fell at night, followed by sunny days which were great for growing. I worked a piece of borrowed land this summer, one that had been fallow for a couple of years, and I was not bothered by tomato blights there, so the leaves are still green and the plants producing well.
I grew corn for the first time in more than 20 years and was delighted that the corn did not all get ripe at once; it ripened over a 3 week period. I had plenty to share, which is nice, too. People often say that you can’t grow corn organically – that you need insecticides to kill the corn ear worms and chemical fertilizers to feed the nitrogen-hungry plants. I used neither, and got fat, juicy ears that produced not a single worm. I fertilized with Pro-Gro organic fertilizer at planting time. Period. Too much nitrogen from chemical fertilizers has been shown to attract insects.
I used a lot of hay as mulch this year, and that really helped to keep weeding to a manageable level. Three or four inches of mulch hay around the tomatoes applied early on kept down weeds and provided a nice clean place for fruit, some of which inevitably lands on the ground (despite the cages).
It’s important to clean up and remove diseased plants once they have stopped producing. I like to mix plant carcasses with brush in a pile in the garden where I can burn it all after the snow flies. Insects (and their larvae and eggs) and fungal spores can be effectively destroyed that way. Weeds harboring seeds can go on the pile, too. Weeds with big clusters of seeds should not go in a compost pile that you intend to use anytime soon. Weed seeds can last for years, and composting often does not kill them.
Some of my flower beds are less weedy this year than in the recent past. I’ve realized that I have more flower beds than I can keep up with by myself, so I hired a fellow to help me weed this summer – and he actually knows the difference between a flower and a weed! It was quite liberating. But I need to go over some of the beds he worked on and get out little weeds that have appeared since he cleaned them up. Weed seeds – or scraps of root – are a fact of life, and re-weeding is always necessary. If I get these little weeds now, it will help me have cleaner beds in the spring. It will help, too, if I put down a layer of bark mulch after this weeding.
Each summer I grow colorful plants on my deck, and I dread the onset of cold weather as many of these plants will never be happy inside the house. They just can’t survive the lower light levels indoors. Each fall night that portends frost I scurry back and forth from the deck to the indoors, lugging my favorite plants. I keep them living as long as I can but realize that some will have to be left to succumb to the arriving cold.
A fall chore I do each year without fail is to wash the leaves, top and bottom, of any plant that I bring in from the outside. I do this to wash off aphids and their eggs and larvae. Aphids are well controlled outdoors – there are lots of predator insects that consider them the Ben and Jerry’s of the insect world, consuming them with glee. But indoors? Even a few eggs will soon produce adults that will reproduce and make a mess of my houseplants. So I wash them with a sharp stream of water from the hose, let them dry in the sun, and then bring them indoors for the winter.
A fall chore I often forget to do in time is to dig up and store tender bulbs like gladiolas, dahlias and peacock orchids or sword lilies (Acidanthera spp.). These will not survive our winters and deserve to come indoors to live in a paper bag in a cool spot. This year I resolve to do better. I planted sword lilies in pots and they are blooming beautifully right now, and are delightfully fragrant.
This week I will plant some grass seed. Fall is a good time to fill in dead spots on the lawn. The soil is warmer now than in the spring, and fall rains will make watering less needed. There is still plenty of time for the new grass plants to get established before cold weather. I’ll just scuff up the soil with a short-tined garden rake, spread some seed, and then cover it with a thin layer of mulch. Finally I’ll smooth over the mulch with the back side of a lawn rake to mix in the seed and compress the soil a bit by putting down a board or small square of plywood and stepping on it lightly.
There will still be plenty of summer-like days ahead, but it’s good, I think, to start planning for fall and winter. Before we know it, we’ll be raking up the leaves – and shoveling snow.
Henry Homeyer is a garden designer and consultant, and the author of 5 books. His web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com.
We New Englanders have a long tradition of doing something to brighten the approach to our front door. In winter it’s a nice green wreath; my grandmother liked red geraniums in a pot by the door all summer; in fall, pumpkins and chrysanthemums are traditional decorations. Three common decorative plants are available for purchase at farm stands now – and worth a look.
Chrysanthemums are very popular, and are readily available in a wide range of colors. I treat them as annuals even though some are touted as perennials. I once estimated the number of buds and blossoms on a potted “mum”. By counting and multiplying I arrived at an estimate of 300 blossoms on a plant that was perhaps 18-inches across. Phenomenal. But if I had planted it in the ground and it came back the next spring, I would have gotten just a small fraction of the number of blossoms the following year. Why? The growers pinch back the stems at least twice to make the plant branch again and again. I don’t have the patience to do so.
A few tips about keeping mums happy. First, they have a large number of blossoms and leaves for the size of their pots. On a crisp fall day a mum loses a lot of water, especially on a sunny doorstep. You probably should water daily, or every other day. If yours comes in a peat pot, which many do, the soil or potting mix will dry out even faster than if it’s growing in a plastic pot. I find that submerging the pots in a big container of water and holding them down until they stop bubbling is the best way to get the roots full hydrated. Or transplant them to self-water containers that have water reservoirs to prevent roots from drying out.
Secondly, if you want to plant your mums in the ground, be careful at planting time: the branches are often very brittle. It’s always disappointing to me when I break off a big section of a mum before it can even strut its stuff for a moment. Usually I just leave my mums in their pots and arrange them by the front door.
If I do plant my mums, I endeavor to plant them deep enough so that I can cover the root ball with an inch of real soil (they are planted in a peat-based growing mix that dries out very quickly). And although you can plant the peat pots directly in the ground, tear off the top 2 inches of pot so that it won’t be sticking up and wicking water away. Remember, a dry mum is an unhappy mum. Frost seems a long way away now, but remember to cover mums when hard frost comes, or bring the pots indoors. They survive light frost nicely.
Another great fall doorstep plant is decorative cabbage or kale. I just bought a big fat one at a farmers market recently, and it will look great all fall, assuming I don’t let it dry out. Last year I started a couple of dozen decorative kales from seed, but was disappointed that they stayed smaller than those generally sold, and bolted in the heat of summer. Huh. The professionals seem to have tricks I do not. I had mine in the ground, not pots, and had planned on transplanting them into nice containers after Labor Day, but ultimately I didn’t think them worthy of moving to the front of the house.
Decorative kale generally has dark green or purplish leaves on the outside, and pink, white or light purple inside. I’ve read that they are, indeed, edible, but are tough and leathery; why bother when edible kale is so easy to grow and tasty? Another great feature of decorative kale is its ability to survive frost. It will not even blink when temperatures drop down into the teens, assuming that your plant has seen temperatures in the twenties and has had time to get used to cold weather. I’ve read that they will survive temperatures as low as 5 degrees without harm.
The last of the fall porch plants are the short asters commonly available in blues and purples, and occasionally in white. Like the mums, these have been pinched back to stimulate the production of more blossoms – and to keep them short. Most are winter hardy, and I have planted them in the ground and let them come back for a second show the next year. But instead of being under a foot tall, they were at least 18 inches tall and only had a few blossoms. I never got around to pinching them back. Nice in the second year, but not dramatic. I usually prefer to buy new plants and let someone else do all the hard work.
Even if you have some new mums on the porch, don’t forget about your window boxes and planters full of annuals. Yes, they may look bedraggled now, but with a little care you can give them new life. Deadhead blossoms, cutting back stems several inches below those tired seed heads. This is tedious, but worthwhile. And give those annuals a burst of energy with some liquid fertilizer. I use a liquid fish mix, but there are plenty of choices, and almost anything will help.
When I see a nice pot of flowers on a neighbor’s porch I always think, “How nice. She is blessing us all with a glimpse of beauty as we go by.” I try to do my part in doing the same, and hope you will, too.
Henry Homeyer is a gardening coach, garden designer and the author of 4 gardening books. His Web site is www.Gardening-guy.com.
What one kind of flower would you bring with you if you were being sentenced to life on a deserted island? Would you pick peonies for their big, bold blossoms and tantalizing smell? Or perhaps primroses for their bountiful blossoms and willingness to spread? A better choice might actually be daylilies. They’ll grow just about anywhere, are generally untroubled by pests and diseases – and you can eat them! This is daylily season, and a good time to buy some more for your garden.
Let’s start with the common orange daylily (Hemerocallis fulva). Most gardens have some. You’ll also see them by the side of the road as if gardeners – having too many, but unwilling to compost them – have heaved them out the windows of their cars. These sturdy perennials will grow anywhere, and will even bloom in the shade. They were introduced from Asia in the late 1800’s and were admired as exotic at the time, I’m sure. But now they are too common for most gardeners’ taste. And they do spread by root, which can be bothersome.
In the Chinese market in Montreal daylily tubers are for sale for cooking. I’ve tried cleaning and cooking the roots of my own orange daylilies, but have decided that it’s too much work to get them clean enough to eat. They were tasty enough, but fry up almost anything with garlic and onions, and it will be yummy.
The flowers are edible and surprisingly delicious. Make a big green salad and add daylily petals for color. Don’t use the stamens and pistils (the little stuff inside the blossoms) as they’re not tasty. Chop or tear the petals. And toss in a few buds, which taste a bit like asparagus or green beans.
For a nice vegetable dish, sauté chopped onions, shallots or garlic in olive oil or butter. Add a little chopped tarragon and black pepper. When the onions are almost cooked, drop in buds from those common orange daylilies you have been meaning to manage, but haven’t. Select buds an inch to an inch and a half long. They will start to open when they are cooked – in just a minute or two.
For dessert you can take a wine glass and place in it a fully open, brightly-colored daylily blossom. Put in a scoop of sherbet in the blossom and garnish with a few fresh berries and a mint leaf if you have one. Yum!
Daylilies are great cut flowers. Because each blossom only lasts a day – hence the name – most people don’t use them in flower arrangements. But I cut scapes (leafless stems) that are just starting to bloom and have numerous fat, unopened buds. The buds will open one at a time for up to a week, depending on number of buds. This works most reliably if the arrangement gets some sunshine each day.
I recently visited Cider Hill Gardens in Windsor, VT to admire their collection of daylilies. They have daylilies in a wide range of colors, from nearly white (‘Ice Carnival’) to deep reds that border on black. They have daylilies that are pink, creamy yellow or light orange, lilac, lavender, bluish and red. Some come in one color, but most are bi-colored, with a throat or eye of a second color. Each flower has both petals and sepals, and in some, like ‘Frans Hals’, the petals and sepals can be different colors – a look I like.
Flower shape varies as much as the colors. There is the standard trumpet. Then there are those with ruffled edges (‘Here She Comes’ is a good one). And the so-called ‘spiders’, whose petals are narrow and spaced apart a little – like the legs of a spider. ‘Kindly Light’ is a nice yellow one. ‘Doubles, such as ‘Jean Swann’ have their centers filled in with lots of extra petals. And some are worth buying for their great names like ‘Blueberry Breakfast’ or ‘Bodacious’.
Then there are the re-blooming daylilies, like Stella de Oro, a gold-colored daylily that is very popular because it blooms off and on all summer. I’ve seen pictures of a re-bloomer called Purple de Oro that I simply must have. So many kinds, so little garden space!
What do daylilies want in life? Sunshine, dark rich soil, and adequate moisture. But they will settle for less – even a lot less- and bloom almost anywhere. Yes, slugs will sometimes nibble on the leaves, but they are not a magnet for bugs the way some roses are.
Over time clumps of daylilies get bigger, and you can divide them to start new clumps. Simply slice through a big clump with a spade to make two or four new plants, pry them apart and re-plant. I’ve been known to take out a chunk shaped like a piece of pie with a serrated knife – and the mother plant never even seemed to notice I’d done so. So run to your neighborhood plant center and have a look – you’ll likely come home with something wonderful.
Henry Homeyer is the author of 4 gardening books, and a children’s fantasy-adventure, Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet. Contact Henry through his Web site, www.Gardening-Guy.com.
Many gardeners seem to think that any UFI (Unidentified Flying Insect) is a potential threat to their tomatoes or the spinach. When in doubt, they swat it, squish it or submerge it. But most bugs are not bad – and many are helpful.
We all know that lady bugs are good. They eat aphids and in fact, some enterprising businesses are selling lady bugs by the thousand. My advice? Don’t bother buying them. If you’re not spraying your flowers and vegetables with insecticides, you will naturally have some ladybugs and other aphid eaters. Of course insecticides will throw off the balance of nature, and the pests may dominate. But a good healthy garden should attract beneficials like ladybugs in the quantities that you need. Bring in a thousand? They might fly away the same day.
According to the lovely little guide book, Good Bug Bad Bug: Who’s Who, What They Do, and How to Manage Them Organically by Jessica Walliser, a ladybug can eat up to 5,000 aphids in its lifetime. But there are plenty of other good bugs. This book, by the way, is simple, well illustrated and sturdy enough to take to the garden. I recommend it.
The assassin bug is just that: a voracious predator that will eat cabbage worms, potato beetles, cucumber beetles, cutworms, earwigs, Japanese beetles, Bean beetles, tomato hornworms, and more. They are generally black, and about half an inch long with a broad body and bristly front legs. They have a sharp curved beak they use to penetrate other insects, allowing them to inject a poison to kill them and turn their insides into a “smoothie” they can drink. They can sometimes pierce human flesh if handled roughly.
Lacewings are beautiful green flying insects with diaphanous wings. You’ve probably seen them on your window screens, attracted to the lights – they’re about an inch long. But it is their larvae that do they work in the garden – they eat about 100 aphids a day! The larvae are brown and white with big mandibles for grasping prey. They are half an inch long, and fast moving. The adults eat nectar and pollen of flowers and weeds including dandelions, Queen Anne’s lace and goldenrod so a few weeds are good to have – alonmg with plenty of flowers.
Parasitic wasps are generally small – from 1/32 of an inch to half an inch – but do great work. There are some 200 different kinds, according to Good Bug Bad Bug. Many have noticeable ovipositors for laying eggs, but don’t be confused and think they are stingers – these beneficial insects do not sting. They generally lay their eggs in the bodies, larvae or eggs of other insects. Once their eggs hatch, the young parasitic wasps feed on their prey.
One type of parasitic wasp feeds on the tomato hornworm. If you see small white “grains of rice” on the back of a hornworm, these are actually larvae of a wasp. Don’t kill the hornworm! Just move it off, away from your tomatoes, and let the wasp larvae do their thing. Like the lacewings, the adults feed on nectar and pollen, so a diverse garden with continuous blooms is a good attractant.
One of the things I like about the book Good Bug Bad Bug is that it offers many solutions to an insect problem. Row cover, a breathable spun fabric, is offered as a solution to striped cucumber beetles, and it reminds the reader that cukes are insect pollinated so you can’t keep it on once your vines start to produce blossoms. The book also suggests interplanting with marigolds, catnip or tansy or putting out yellow sticky cards to catch the culprits. Mulch, the book says, will help keep females from contact with the soil where they lay their eggs, too. I didn’t know that.
Potato bugs are my current nemesis. I plant my potatoes much later than my neighbors (in late June) which often means the bugs are already busy by the time my spuds come along. This year they have found me anyway. Every day I go down the row of potatoes, flipping the foliage over to look for adults and orange egg masses underneath the leaves. If I spot eggs, I remove that part of the leaf and put it in soapy water. This sounds tedious, but is actually just a 5 minute job for my 65 plants – and it makes a huge difference.
Diligence counts: I skipped a couple of days of patrol, and found potato bug larvae eating my plants. And picking 50 larvae is a lot more work than removing one leaf. So I shall keep up my vigilance. And if the larvae seem to be winning, I can always spray a biological control called Bt. This is a bacterium that will control them, but damage nothing else. But not all Bt is the same: ask for one that controls potato beetles (San Diego or tenebrionis).
Try to get over your aversion to bugs in the garden, if you have one. Just because a bug is unknown to you is no reason to squish it. It may be an assassin bug, ready to help you!
Henry Homeyer is the author of 4 gardening books. His Web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com. He is also a garden designer, gardening coach and public speaker.
I grew up in a small town in rural Connecticut. Behind the house there was a brook and a hardwood forest with a high canopy of old maples that created a cool space for spending hot summer days. My favorite understory tree was a small, bushy tree that had very fragrant leaves and stems, which I decided must be witch hazel, as the barber splashed witch hazel on my neck after each haircut, and it was vaguely the same. I frequently chewed on the leaves and green twigs in lieu of the chewing gum that was forbidden to me.
This summer I discovered the name of that plant: spicebush (Lindera benzoin). One of my gardening clients had requested one for her garden, and as soon as I crushed a leaf, I was transported back 60 years. I knew it immediately. Most winters my part of New Hampshire drop to minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit, so any plant that will survive here must be rated for Zone 4 (Minus 20 to minus 30). I checked my favorite tree book (Michael Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants), and sure enough, spicebush is rated for Zone 4. I will get my own as soon as I find the right place on my property to plant it.
From Dirr’s book I learned that spicebush can get to be up to 12 feet tall and wide, and is in the laurel family. There are 80 species of Lindera, both deciduous and evergreen (L. benzoin is deciduous). Apparently it blooms in early spring but the yellow blossoms are only one fifth of an inch across, so not overwhelming (I have no memory of it blooming). Fall leaf color is yellow. Dirr’s book says it does well in moist, well drained soils in full sun or half shade, though in my experience it will do well in dry shade in open woodlands. Dirr says spicebush is not often found in nurseries, but E.C. Brown’s Nursery in Thetford, VT has several nice ones.
Another woodland plant that I would like to try is leatherwood (Dirca palustris). Like spicebush, this is a native shrub that will grow in shady areas but this one prefers moist to wet soil – and I have plenty of that. Apparently it only gets to be 3 to 6 feet tall and wide, and is more open and spreading in shade than in sun. It is has small yellow flowers that bloom very early in the spring, well before the leaves emerge. Native Americans used the bark to make bow strings, fish lines and in the manufacture of baskets. Tough stuff.
Three years ago I planted a sweetshrub or Carolina allspice (Calycanthus florida). The first 2 years I grew it in full sun with deep, rich moist soil. Both years the leaves yellowed – as if the sun were too strong and bleached them out. So last fall I moved it into a grove of old wild apples that provide full shade, and it seems to be doing much better. It is blooming now, and has put on considerable new growth.
Sweetshrub grows to be 6 to 9 feet tall with a 6 to 12 foot spread. Some varieties have very fragrant flowers, but mine is not. Dirr’s book suggests buying the shrub is in bloom in early summer, as the fragrance varies from plant to plant. It is adaptable to acid or alkaline soils, and is hardy to Zone 4.
Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) is another fabulous shrub that will grow in deep shade (or even full sun), and I have grown it these past 20 years or so, even though I am on the northern edge of where it is successful. Mine produces delicate three-quarter inch diameter flowers, cups of white with pink veins. After cold winters I don’t always get flowers. There are cultivars with flowers in white to rose, and everything in between. Definitely buy when blooming. It does best in acidic soil that is cool and lightly moist. I have seen it growing abundantly in the wild at Sleeping Giant State Park in Hamden Connecticut, where there is a high, dry, open hardwood forest.
Of all the shade-growing woody plants, the most dramatic on my property is the climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris). I have vines that completely cover the north side of my barn – and that only get a few hours of sun each day. It is in bloom now, with flower corymbs (flat topped inflorescences) that have both fertile and sterile (showy) blossoms and are 6 to 10 inches across.
Climbing hydrangea is slow to get established – mine took 6 years – but once it begins to grow, it quickly covers a surface. It will attach itself to stone or brick, but needs to be strapped onto wood surfaces, at least at first. Mine has grown through the cracks on the barn and is now self-supporting. Its vines can grow 60 feet or more, and has support arms for its flowers that reach straight out from the barn that are up to 3 feet long. It is truly dramatic.
So don’t despair if your property is mostly in the shade. There are these plants, and lots more, that will amaze and delight you.
Henry Homeyer is the author of 4 gardening books. His Web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com.
Bill Waste of Lyme, NH likes to say he gardens with a chain saw. Bill is a good humored fellow, and likes to joke. But I’ve seen him use the chain saw to get a growing bed ready to plant, so his claim is, at least partially, legitimate. What Bill was doing in the vegetable garden with his chain saw was preparing straw bales for planting.
Bill lives on a hill high above the Connecticut River in Lyme, NH with a great view, but limited space for gardening. He is surrounded by trees and the property has rocky soil that would daunt even a hard-working pilgrim. This was sheep farming country for good reason – growing vegetables is hard work in rocky soil. But each year Bill grows tomatoes, basil, pumpkins and squash. This year and last he planted his squash and pumpkins in hay bales.
If you lack good soil, or have invasive weeds that terrorize your garden plot, you might want to think about growing some vegetables in hay bales, too. It’s easy, and you don’t really have to have a chain saw. Bill explained to me that he places three hay bales side-by-side to let them season – 5 weeks is a minimum, he said. He sprinkles about a cup of organic blood meal on the top of each bale to provide nitrogen to the hay, and waters it in well – encouraging the blood meal to penetrate the hay. The hay then begins to ferment, and the blood meal provides nitrogen for the microbes that are beginning to break down the hay.
This first step of seasoning the hay is important, Bill told me, because it gives off considerable heat. Enough heat so that seeds or plants might be killed after planting. As any farmer can tell you, moist hay can occasionally generate enough heat to start a fire by spontaneous combustion. In tests I conducted some years ago, a compost pile can attain temperatures of 130 to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, and grass seed will not germinate after a few days at those temperatures.
But back to the chain saw. After 5 weeks or more outdoors, the hay bales are ready to plant. Bill uses the chain saw to carve out a planting cavity that he fills with soil. The cavity is roughly 6 by 12 inches, and 6 inches deep. I asked if I could prepare one planting hole with a knife, and he let me. I used a 6-inch long serrated knife that I got from Lee Valley tools called a root knife. It was a little slower than Bill’s chain saw, but it did the job. You could do it with a steak knife, I suppose.
After carving out the cavity, Bill fills it with potting soil and a little organic fertilizer. He plants 5 pumpkin or squash seeds in the potting soil, waters well, and steps back, ready for Mother Nature to take over. There are no weed seeds in the potting mix, and the only work that Bill needs to do is make sure the bale does not dry out. If all 5 seeds germinate, he thins out 2 plants.
Although one could grow almost anything in a hay bale, Bill recommends vines, since they can spill over the sides and stretch out across the garden. The only down side I can see is that you must be willing to let the vines grow over the lawn- which cannot easily be cut while the plants are growing. One could, I suppose, put down black plastic or mulch to keep down grass and weeds as the vines grow.
Bill is always looking for ways to save energy – his, that is. He has come up with a method of growing tomatoes that allows him to go away for a week if he wants, without letting his tomatoes suffer from lack of water. It requires access to lots of plastic buckets, which he has. Some fast food places give them away, and some building contractors have excess buckets that sheet rock “mud” comes in.
What Bill does is bury 5-gallon pails in his garden, leaving just a couple of inches above ground. These are his water reservoirs, and his tools for getting moisture down deep in the ground. Instead of surface watering every day in August when his garden is dry and thirsty, he just waters once a week by filling the buckets. The trick? He has drilled a series of eighth-inch holes in the buckets so that water leaks out to the soil after he fills them.
Around each bucket Bill plants 3 tomato plants, each just as close to the bucket as he can. The buckets have three sets of 6 or 7 small holes, each in an inverted “Y” pattern. The water leaks out in an hour or so, but it gets water where he wants it: down deep.
Each of us has a different approach to weeding, watering, planting. We figure out what works best. I doubt I will ever bury buckets for watering my garden, but if you have dry, sandy soil, you might want to. And hay bales? I’ll probably try it.
Henry’s Web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. He is the author of 5 books.
This year I started my tomatoes indoors much earlier than I usually do. Normally I start them on April 10 at 10:14. Only kidding. I start them, most years, during the second week of April. That way they are well established by the time they are planted outdoors 8 weeks later – but not crowding the root space provided by a standard flat.
But this year I started most on March 24, 3 weeks earlier. Why? Because the winter was so long and harsh I was ready to see little green things growing under lights – and was willing to take on the responsibilities of nurturing them. But this year I will have to transplant my seedlings into 3-inch pots in May to avoid root crowding.
I will pick a date for transplanting according to the Stella Natura calendar (www.stellanatura.com). This is a biodynamic planting calendar that is “supported by lunar and planetary rhythms”. For each day of the year, and every hour, the calendar designates one of 5 categories: good for working with or planting flowers, fruit, roots, leafs, or none of those – a “black-out day”. I will pick a fruit day for my transplanting .
I’ve done just a little testing of the recommendations of the Stella Natura calendar, but enough so that I feel obliged to follow it. Probably you have had times when you planted seeds and got a bad germination rate. I have. I blamed the seeds – or my planting technique. But a few years ago I tried planting a 6-pack of lettuce on a leaf day, and then again the following day, which my biodynamic calendar indicated was a blackout day. The first lettuce germinated at close to 100%, while the second at considerably less than 50% and many of the plants that grew were stunted or died. Same soil mix, same temperatures, same watering. So now I follow the calendar – at least as far as avoiding the black out days.
According to the calendar, “scientific studies showing that plant metabolism, growth rate and water absorption tend to peak around full moon. …The full moon enhances germination. Sow seeds 2 or 3 days before the full moon to receive its optimal drawing power”.
It’s important, when transplanting seedlings to bigger containers, to use a planting mix that is warmed indoors for a day or so. Potting mix coming right from the barn might be chilly enough to shock tender little roots. I use a 2 quart juice pitcher and measure out 10 quarts of commercial seed-starting or potting mix and 10 quarts of compost in a plastic recycling bin.
I stir in a cup of Pro-Gro or other organic fertilizer and a cup of Azomite or other rock powder, then moisten the mixture enough so that the dryness of the commercial potting mix, which contains peat moss or coir, is overcome. Then I let it sit for a day or more to warm up indoors.
Azomite is a rock powder mined in Utah that contains 70 naturally occurring minerals and trace elements harvested from a layer of volcanic ash that was later inundated with sea water. Although I do not have scientific proof of its ability to improve growth and vigor of plants, I have done some informal experiments with rock powders, and believe that they help.
If you use the same plot every year for decades, as I have, trace minerals of the soil may well get used up, so adding a wide variety of minerals makes sense to me. I add Azomite or finely ground granite powder to increase mineral diversity in my planting mix and also in my soil.
I re-use plastic pots each year, and believe it is a good practice to clean them before re-using. I wash them in the sink with soapy water, or sometimes fill the top shelf of the dishwasher to clean them. This helps to eliminate any bacterial residues that might not be good for my seedlings.
Also key to success with indoor seedlings is a good light source. I use ordinary fluorescent lights that I hang over my seedlings. I keep them about 6 inches above the seedlings, Light intensity diminishes exponentially with distance. My lights hang on chains, and I raise the lights as the seedlings grow. I have the lights on a timer so they are on just 14 hours a day. Little plants need rest, too.
Don’t keep your seedlings too warm. Sixty-five degrees is good for the day time, but leave a window ajar at night to let temperatures drop to 55 degrees – though I admit that don’t do that most nights.
Growing seedlings from seed requires some work, but I do it every year because I love tending my seedlings. I save money doing it, and can grow plants I would never find for sale at a garden center, too.
Henry Homeyer can be reached at P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746. Please include a self-addressed, stamped envelope if you want a question answered by mail. Henry’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.Gardening-Guy.com.
I’ve been paying attention to snowdrops and crocus since I was 9 years old – I recently found entries in my diary that tell me so. My entry for March 7, 1956, in its entirety was this: “Spring is getting here at last the snow drops are in bud + will bloom in a few days.” Then on April 5 I wrote,” Today our first crocus was in bloom it is very pretty.” I still pay attention to them, and generally note when they come into bloom. Now is the time to decide where you should plant bulbs next fall.
Here’s what I do. I wander around my property each year in the spring to see what spots are bare of bulb flowers. I bring along those white plastic markers used for labeling, and write “add crocus here”, for example. Then in the fall, when it’s time to plant more bulbs I don’t have to rely on my memory.
When planting bulbs, I label what I‘ve planted. That way I’ll see what has performed well, and be able to buy more of the same. For example, I’m always eager to get color in the garden at the same time that the snowdrops bloom. Glory –of-the-snow is one plant that overlaps with snowdrops, but is a bit later, as is scilla. This spring I saw that a crocus I planted last fall, ‘Blue Pearl, is blooming with my snowdrops – and before those other two. So I’ll buy 100 of those for fall planting. I bought them at Brent and Becky’s Bulbs– I know because they include tags with each bag of bulbs.
Writing this in early April, I haven’t seen any of my winter aconite appear, though I would have thought they would be up by now. It is a very early bright yellow flower that has one-inch wide, six-petaled flowers. I’ve grown it before but lost it to cold or rodents or poor drainage. I’m still optimistic that it will show up.
I tend to blame bulb failure on drainage problems even though I mix in lots of compost at planting time and favor hillsides. South facing hillsides are great for early bulbs as the snow melts off weeks earlier than north-facing plots. But rodents might be the culprits, too.
A bulb plant that I’ve considered fussy is a low-growing iris, Iris reticulata. It is a lovely iris that blooms near the ground level and has medium-sized blue, purple or (sometimes) yellow flowers. Doing some research I found out why I thought they are fussy: after they bloom, the bulbs divide, producing several little bulblets. These won’t bloom for a few years. So I need to plant some every year until I have a mature colony of them. I also read that they like soil that dries out well in summer, such as in a rock garden or sandy hillside.
My lawn is full of snowdrops that have planted themselves. I assume that they produce seeds that wash into the lawn with early summer rains. The bulk of my snowdrops are planted on a hillside above the lawn. But you can plant early spring bulbs in the lawn, too. Just don’t plant daffodils or anything with large leaves because you won’t be able to mow the lawn where they are growing until the leaves yellow and dry off – around July 4th. Bulb plants need to re-charge their batteries, if you will, by getting sunshine and storing energy.
Little bulbs like snowdrops, crocus and grape hyacinths have short leaves that disappear early and won’t disrupt your early mowing. You can always set the lawn mower blades high to protect the leaves if they are still green when you need to cut the lawn.
Grape hyacinths (Muscari spp.) are great little flowers that come in many different shades of blue and purple. I’ve planted many dozens in my day, but find they tend to lose vigor and disappear with time. So I plant them again. This spring I bought a pot of them at a garden center and have been enjoying them immensely in the house. Later, when the soil is thawed, I’ll plant them outside. I keep the pot in a cool space indoors, as if they get too warm, they flop over.
Tulips I treat like annuals. I plant 100 most years in a bed that I reserve for them – and later zinnias. If I had depended on bulbs planted in 2012 for this year, the number of blooms might be just 50, and maybe 25 the following spring. So I don’t bother to coddle them. In fact, I often pull the flower stem instead of cutting it, as I can get an extra 2-3 inches of stem for my vase, and I love tall tulips. I compost the spent bulbs. I find that adding a few pennies to the water in the vase helps the tulips to last longer before losing their petals, or opening if picked in bud.
Daffodils are slightly poisonous to deer and rodents, so they aren’t eaten – and can bloom for years. You can plant them in open woodlands and they will do fine. I grew up with daffodils planted along paths in our woods, and I still delight in the memory of them. By the way, if you forced paperwhites this winter, don’t bother planting them outdoors – they’re not hardy here.
Bulbs are a great investment. Most come back year after year, bringing me pleasure each year before the garden gets going.
Henry Homeyer is a gardening coach living in Cornish Flat, NH. His Web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com.