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The Spring Bulb Flowers



 

Snow drops in April

Snow drops in April

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.

 

Early crocus

Early crocus

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.

 

Glory of the Snow  early April 005

Glory of the Snow early April 005

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

Grape hyacinths

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.

 

Spring Pruning



Conventional wisdom has it that fruit trees should be pruned in March, but don’t worry if you haven’t even started yet. I haven’t. There’s no harm in pruning in April, or anytime, really. After the buds on fruit trees open, they are more prone to being knocked off while we work on the trees. But you probably don’t care if you get a few less apples or pears. The snow has been so deep this year that it has been difficult to move ladders around, keeping most of us from starting early.

 

Pruning is best done with clean, sharp equipment. You’ll need a pair of by-pass hand pruners and a sharp tri-cut pruning saw. Bow saws, once popular, are tough to get in tight places, so the folding saw has taken over. A nice pair of loppers will save time sawing medium-sized branches.

 

Before beginning, check your pruners to see if they are sharp. I do that with the backside of a fingernail, which I drag lightly across the cutting blade. It should shave off a little of the nail. (If yours are not sharp, read my description of how to sharpen pruners in my book, Organic Gardening (not just) in the Northeast: A Hands-On, Week-by Week Guide. Your library should have it).

 

Next I clean off any gunk on the blades. I use a special solution called Sap-X with an old green scrubby, but you could use a little sewing machine oil or even kerosene. The blades should open and close easily.

 

Branch collar and line to show where to cut

Branch collar and line to show where to cut

Start working on a tree by studying it for a few minutes. Apples do best with a single leader in the middle and the longest branches near the base, getting shorter going up the trunk. If you have two competing leaders, it would be good to remove one, though in an old tree that might not be practical due to the size.

 

As you look at the tree, ask yourself which larger branches should be removed. Are there any dead branches? They must be removed, so start by taking them out. Are there branches that are rubbing others, or crossing through the middle of the tree? They can go next. Lastly, remove any watersprouts – those smaller branches shooting straight up.

 

Healed cut and new water sprout

Healed cut and new water sprout

Some fruit trees produce dozens – or even hundreds – of water sprouts each year. Although some varieties seem more prone to producing them than others, you can minimize their presence by pruning to create a well-balanced tree that allows sunshine to get to each leaf of the tree. Watersprouts are the tree’s effort to produce more leaves to create more food.

 

Even though it might seem scary, it is better to remove large branches than to nip away at a tree, taking tiny branches. It is more efficient, and makes for a better looking, healthier tree. In any given year you can remove up to a quarter of the tree. That means a quarter of the branches that produce leaves – and hence food for the tree. Taking out a big dead branch doesn’t count at all. A healthy tree allows each leaf to get sunshine. If there are too many branches, they will shade each other out.

 

Stub healing back to branch collar

Stub healing back to branch collar

Where you make your cuts is important, too. Don’t cut off branches flush with the trunk, nor leave long stubs. Branches should be pruned just outside (away from) the wrinkly flare that starts at the trunk or a larger branch. That area you should leave is called the trunk collar. It is the site where healing takes places fastest. Years ago arborists recommended painting tar over a cut, but that is no longer thought to be a good practice.

 

If you have an empty place in your tree and wish you had a branch there, sometimes you can bend down a branch and keep it in place until it will stay put – generally around July 4th. But don’t do that until after the leaves appear. You can attach a weight to a small branch. A plastic soda bottle is good: you can add water until it is just the right weight. Or you can tie a bigger branch down to a stake in the ground.

 

Apples generally are produced on short spurs that occur on scaffold branches that are at a 45 degree angle from the main trunk (or even more horizontal). Branches going straight up are less likely to produce fruit. But don’t be impatient with young trees: they won’t produce fruit until they are good and ready.

 

Pruning on a warm spring day is great fun, and a good excuse to be outside. And remember, trees are not like people: they benefit by having their limbs removed.

 

Henry Homeyer lives in Cornish Flat, NH. His Web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com.

 

 

           

Vegetables as Art



                        

I would hazard a guess that if you toured an art museum, the artwork depicting flowers would outnumber the art showing vegetables by ten to one. Or maybe a hundred to one. Flowers? Georgia O’Keefe and her poppies spring to my mind, Monet had his famous paintings of Giverny with its water lilies. Van Gogh had his sunflowers. And so on. But few painters have focused on kohlrabi or lettuce. And why is that? Vegetables are as beautiful as flowers if properly grown and displayed.

 

Bill Chisholm art

Bill Chisholm art

I was recently at the Rhode Island Flower Show and was struck by the artwork of Bill Chisholm of Somerville, Massachusetts (www.billchisholm.com). He had big, bold paintings for sale of vegetables and fruits. I bought a big tomato, a smaller artichoke and a delightful clove of garlic. I hung them in my kitchen, next to the stove. He paints in oil, and then has reproductions printed on canvas using a technique called giclée. The canvas is stretched on wood frames, just like an original, but at a small fraction of the price.

 

Much of my life is devoted to my vegetable gardens in the spring, summer and fall. I start seeds now, indoors. I baby the infants outdoors in May and June. I harvest and process the food much of the summer and all of the fall. So now, in winter, it’s nice to see veggies on the wall – in addition to those in the freezer. My new art got me thinking about the veggies we will plant this summer.

 

 As you plan your garden this year, think about planting veggies in artistic ways. Choose cultivars for color and leaf texture, and plant them as you would if you were planting a flower garden – or creating a painting. Here are some of my favorites;

 

I love lettuces. They come in so many colors and leaf textures. I start lettuce in the house in April and May in 6-packs, each week starting a couple of different varieties. I plant green leaf lettuce, red lettuce, lettuce of multiple hues. In the garden I like to space lettuce six inches apart so that each head reaches full size, and is not crowded. But I like to interplant reds with greens, frilly lettuces with shiny leafed-lettuce. Arugula with Romaine or Oakleaf – and so forth.

 

I get seeds from numerous sources. Renee’s Seeds (www.reneesgarden.com) packages lettuces in pairs or trios of colors. This allows you to create a colorful array of leaf colors with just a package or two. Johnny’s Selected Seeds has an amazing array of lettuce seeds aimed not only at the homeowner, but also the CSA manager and farmer. In their catalog are a few pages showing the diversity of leafs you can work with.

 

 Of the purple-leafed veggies, one of my favorites is orach. This is not a lettuce at all, but a relative of the amaranths, and is sometimes called “summer spinach”. It doesn’t bolt the way spinach does, and can get to be 3-4 feet tall. It will self sow if you let it – I allow a few plants to get big and make seeds, and it comes back each year in my garden. I use if in salads, but I’ve read that it is also good as a cooked green. Available from Johnny’s Seeds.

 

Other gorgeous vegetables include purple kohlrabi, eggplants, artichokes, and cauliflower. Visitors to my garden look at kohlrabi and seem to ask the same question: “What is that? A space alien?” The plant is fat globe that sits on the soil surface and sends up “arms” from the bulb, with leaves on top the arms.

 

For sheer production value, you can’t beat a variety of kohlrabi called ‘Kossak’ from Johnny’s Seeds, which produces globes bigger than softballs. But the purple-skinned ones, while smaller, are my favorites for their beauty. Renee’s Seeds sells a package of mixed purple and green varieties. I chop up kohlrabi and use it is salads and stir fries. It’s crisp and mild flavored, with a bit of a cabbage taste. They are fast-growing and should be started by seed in the garden.

 

Cauliflowers can be gorgeous, too. I have grown a purple cauliflower variety but have to admit that, like most cauliflowers, it is awfully fussy. If the soil is too wet or too dry, the plants get big but don’t produce anything but little buttons – not the big heads you see in the grocery store – or want to eat. And the purple color fades away on cooking.

 

Artichoke Sculpture

Artichoke Sculpture

Artichokes are beautiful plants, but take a long time to grow. In California they are perennials, but not here. This year I started a few seeds in January, but little plants are sometimes sold at good garden centers if you haven’t started any yet. I grow a couple of plants each year mainly for their looks and get a few artichokes to eat, but they are quite small. Some years ago I visited the Giant Artichoke Restaurant in Castroville, CA. It had a sculpture of an artichoke that towered over me that I remember fondly – too bad I can’t have one like it in my garden.

 

So as we move towards spring, think about the art value of your veggies and create your own living artwork. Tasty can be tasteful and pretty, too.

 

In addition to writing, Henry Homeyer teaches pruning to homeowners. He can be reached at henry.homeyer@comcast.net. He lives in Cornish Flat, NH.

 

Growing Your Own Fruit

Posted on Wednesday, March 5, 2014 · Leave a Comment 



 

Most mornings in winter I start my day with a bowl of oatmeal. That can get pretty dull, so I liven it up with a variety of fruits, most of which I grew myself and preserved either dried or frozen. Add some cinnamon or cardamom and a few nuts, and bland becomes bodacious. In my freezer I have blueberries, elderberries, blackberries, plums, apples, raspberries and a few peaches that I got by trading some apples with a friend. So if you’re bored with breakfast, do some studying now about the various fruits you might grow, and plant them this summer.

 

Much of what I know about gardening comes from practical experience: ask a good gardener, for example, what kind of peach tree she grows, plant one, and see how it does. Try again if the first one dies. But I also depend on reading good books on gardening, and now, while there is still snow on the ground, I spend considerable time reading.

 

I have two books on fruit growing that I like a lot. The first, written in 1992 by Lewis Hill of Greensboro, Vermont, is a classic: Fruits and Berries for the Home Garden. Lewis was a friend of mine (he passed away in 2008) and a Vermonter to the core: quick –witted, hardworking, and curious. He grew up on a dairy farm and only had a high school education, but with his wife Nancy, he wrote 16 excellent gardening books. His book on fruits and berries is full of good information but also entertaining. It has recently been updated, I just learned, by University of Vermont professor Len Perry as The Fruit Grower’s Bible.

 

The other fruit book I like is Lee Reich’s Grow Fruit Naturally: A Hands-On Guide to Luscious, Homegrown Fruit, which came out in 2012 and is full of color illustrations and good drawings. Like Hill, Lee Reich is opinionated, thorough, and has many years of experience. Lee has a PhD in horticulture and lives in upstate New York.

 

Medlar

Medlar

Reich’s book introduced me to two fruits hardy for Zone 5 (possibly even Zone 4) that I have never grown or tasted: the medlar and the shipova. The medlar is a small tree that is self-fruitful, meaning that one tree is all that is needed for pollination. According to Reich’s book, the medlar blossoms open late enough to almost never be bothered by spring frosts. The fruit keeps well and is very tasty. So why have I never heard of one? Reich writes, “The flesh, when ready for eating, is brown and mushy and lacking visual appeal.” It also needs “bletting” or ripening on a shelf in a cool room, the cooler the better.

 

Shipova

Shipova

The Shipova is actually a hybrid made from two different species, a type of mountain ash (Sorbus aria) and the European pear. Reich lists it as a Zone 4 plant, so it is hardier than the medlar and should survive my New Hampshire winters easily. It produces pear-like fruit on a tree that can grow to 20 feet, or if grafted on a suitable rootstock, only 8 feet tall. He says that are ready for harvest in mid-summer. Unlike the medlar, the fruit does not keep well – but it is attractive to the eye and tasty, too. I called Lee, and he said the fruit tastes similar to a pear.

 

Reich made it clear that fruits like the medlar and shipova are not often sold at our local nurseries, so I went on-line to see where they are available. Raintree Nursery in Morton, Washington (http://www.raintreenursery.com) had both for sale. In the back of Reich’s book there is a list of nurseries that sell fruit trees, including St Lawrence Nurseries in Potsdam, NY which has lots of cold hardy trees that can be ordered bare root until April 10.

 

Lee Reich’s book is just chockfull of tidbits that are useful. He explains, for example, labels on pesticides: ‘caution’ means the material is slightly toxic or relatively nontoxic. ‘Warning’ means moderate toxicity, and material marked ‘danger’ might kill you – even in small quantities. Lee is a proponent of organic techniques, but points out that even pesticides approved for organic growers can have severe side effects. He notes that nicotine sulfate is an extract of tobacco that is “organic” but has a danger label. It’s important to pay attention to warning labels whether you are using organic pesticides or not.

 

I also like the fact that Reich’s Grow Fruit Naturally has specific cultivars named for the fruits it describes, and offers useful tips such as whether a variety is self-fruitful or not. There is a nice section on pruning and another on proper planting techniques.

 

Call me a skeptic, but I like to buy trees from local nurseries as it means that the owners probably have grown what they are selling. Still … I love to experiment with new plants, and usually try something new every year. This just might be the year for a shipova or a medlar. I wonder how they are on breakfast cereal?

 

Henry Homeyer can be reached at henry.homeyer@comcast.net or by writing him at P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746.

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Enjoying the Winter Landscape

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



 

          I like winter. I like the special quality of winter light in the late afternoon, those purples and blues that were perfectly captured by artist Maxfield Parish. But most of all, I like passing through the woods on skis when the sun is bright. The snow sparkles the way diamonds might, if scattered on a Mediterranean beach.

 

 

          I visit the woods in winter for the same reason that I go to museums: for the sheer beauty on display. There is something uplifting about great works of art – or great works of nature. I don’t need to go to the Grand Canyon to feel awe; I can enjoy the woods near home just as much.  Part of the joy for me is going slowly enough to see what’s there, and taking time to appreciate the details.

 

 

          As I approach my favorite woods, stolid maples wait patiently along the lane, old and venerable. They will share their sweet nectar in another month or two but for now they stand silently, motionless, waiting.

 

 

          In the forest, young hemlocks bend under the weight of snow, their long arms reaching to the ground for stability, green fingers disappearing into the snow. Going through glades of mature hemlocks or pines, their branches reaching out high above me, is almost like visiting a great cathedral. I like the wisps of snow that blow off their branches – snow smoke I call it – even if some goes down my neck.

 

 

          Teenage beeches are the glamour stars of the woods, their bark smooth, gray and unblemished. Young beeches often hold their dry brown leaves until May, and they rustle when I jostle them. But the old beeches seem somber, even sad, and somehow remind me of elephants. They are stolid, unmoving, their grey legs showing wrinkles and scars.

 

 

          I don’t always have time or the energy to go for a long cross-country skiing adventure. Sometimes I just strap on my snowshoes and go to my garden to look at the silhouettes of trees and shrubs.

 

 

Magnolia Flower Bud

Magnolia Flower Bud

One of my favorites is my Merrill magnolia. I planted it some 15 or 20 years ago as a specimen tree in the middle of a mowed lawn. Now it is near maturity: 25 or 30 feet tall with a “wing span” of 20 feet. It has multiple stems, as many magnolia do, and smooth gray bark. The branches are loaded with large, fuzzy flower buds. These buds are bigger and better than pussy willow blossoms, and they bring joy not only for their looks now, but also for the image of what the blossoms will look like: 3-inch double white flowers that are lightly fragrant. The tree almost always blooms for me on April 23, my birthday.

 

 

Twisted Hazelnut

Twisted Hazelnut

I love the curlicue form of purple-leafed, twisted hazelnut (also called Harry Lauder’s walking stick). It is a very interesting silhouette against the snow, and come spring it will produce lovely, glossy purplish leaves. Later in the summer the leaves will lose some of their purple hue and appear more green. 

 

 

          My apple trees can be a joy to look at, too. Proper pruning of apple trees can turn them into works of art. The key is to get rid of the clutter that apple trees seem determined to grow. Annual pruning to get rid of those vertical twigs called “water sprouts” makes a big difference. I tell people that a bird should be able to fly through an apple tree and not get hurt. I once found the skeleton of a bird in an unpruned apple tree, but don’t know for sure how it met its demise. I’ll start pruning in March, once the snow has melted enough to move around the trees easily.

 

 

          A native tree that has a great profile is the pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia). It grows branches well separated, so they remind me of person doing Tai chi, holding arms in frozen poses. I have one that grew out of the face of a retaining wall as a ‘volunteer’. Although I snipped it off when young, the roots sent a new shoot, and I let it grow. Now it is a favorite of mine in winter.

 

 

 

Arctic Blue Willow

Arctic Blue Willow

My arctic blue willow looks great now, too. It is a ‘nana’ or small variety, and has hundreds of thin twigs growing vertically and very close together. Earlier in the winter it was severely bent over by an ice storm, but I shook the branches free of ice and snow, and now it is back in fine form. The 16 inches of fine snow we got recently sifted through the branches this time, giving it a great silhouette.

 

 

          So go outside and really look at the “bones” of your garden on a snowy day. And if you don’t find much to look at, make plans to buy and plant some nice trees and shrubs, come spring.

 

 

Correction: A kindly soils professor e-mailed me about a recent article in which I said wood ashes could be used to substitute for limestone. He noted that trees can pick up lead and cadmium, particularly near roads, so wood ashes are not good to use in the garden. He also said they act so quickly that your soil may become too alkaline and inhospitable to soil microorganisms. 

 

 

Henry Homeyer teaches pruning and general gardening. His web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com. He is the author of 4 gardening books.

 

 

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Winter Reading

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



 

          Going cross country skiing is generally my way of keeping cheery during long, cold winters. We started off the winter with plenty of snow, but lost most of it in January rains, and recently we’ve just had cold weather. It would be pretty easy for me to get the blues under these conditions, so I’ve been looking for ways to keep myself cheerful. One of the ways I do that is by learning about new plants, and dreaming of growing them once winter has ebbed.

 

          Even though it came out in 2011, I only recently got my own copy of Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees & Shrubs. It’s 950 pages of information about 3700 species of woody plants – with more than 3500 good color photos. I have decided to read it cover to cover by April, though I am skimming the parts about plants for Zones 7 to 9. And since I own it, I am underlining and highlighting relevant info about plants that I want to try. I’d like to share a few of my ideas for purchases with you.

 

I’ve filled up most of my sunny places, so things that do well and bloom in shade are of interest to me. In the back of the book are lists of plants that do well in various conditions. It lists 225 plants that do well in shade (though some are outside our climatic zone).

 

Bottlebrush buckeye, photo by Michael Dirr

Bottlebrush buckeye, photo by Michael Dirr

First on my list of shade lovers to buy is bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora). Dirr calls it “truly one of the best native shrubs for late-spring and early summer”. It is hardy to Zone 4 and “flowers almost as prolifically in shade as in sun.” The blossoms are 8 to 12 inch long, bottlebrush-shaped white inflorescences similar to those on horse chestnut trees– they are ‘cousins’ in the same genus. But it is an understory plant, growing to be just 8 to 12 feet high and 8 to 15 feet wide. And although it likes moist, well-drained soils best, it will grow almost anywhere.

 

          Next, for both the bark and the blooms, I want to buy a Japanese clethra (Clethra barbinervis). It is a Zone 5 plant (good to minus 20) that requires shade and moisture-retentive soil for success. I have plenty of moist, shady areas near my stream that would easily harbor a 10 to 20 foot-tall shrub or small tree. The small blossoms are displayed in hanging panicles in July and August – a time when few other shrubs are blooming. The bark is exfoliating (it peels, exposing different colors of bark), which means it will be interesting to look at in winter.

 

Japanese clethera, photo by Michael Dirr

Japanese clethera, photo by Michael Dirr

I’ve always Franklinia (Franklinia alatamaha) for its bark which has interesting vertical fissures and for its 3-inch fragrant white blossoms in July and August. It will grow in shade and likes moist, well-drained soils. But Dirr warns that poorly drained soils generally prove fatal. It is a shrub or small tree, 10 to 20 feet high and 6 to 15 feet wide.

 

Franklinia was originally found in 1770 in Georgia, named after Ben Franklin, and disappeared from the wild by 1790. It is, according to Dirr, “a somewhat persnickety landscape plant.” Does that deter me? Well it has so far, but now that USDA has reclassified my area as Zone 5, and Dirr says this is a Zone 5 plant, maybe I should try it. I have not seen it succeed in New Hampshire or Vermont, which should warn me not to spend too much on my experiment. If you have grown it, please let me know how it did, and where you grew it.

 

Another tree that interests me is paw-paw (Asimina triloba). This is a small understory tree that produces edible fruit with a somewhat tropical flavor – a bit like bananas. I have only seen – and tasted – it in the Athens, Ohio area but Dirr says it is hardy to Zone 5. It does well in moist, well-drained soils in shade to full sun. Dirr says it will sucker (send out roots from the mother plant) so that it creates colonies. I have never seen the flowers, but he describes them as “lurid purple flowers that creep out of hairy brown buds before the leaves come out in April or May”.

 

Why is it that we see so few of these more unusual shrubs and trees? It may be that nurseries are unwilling to try things that no one has ever heard of. Or it may be that some growers have tried them, and the plants did not do well. Soil type (sandy, loam or clay) and soil pH (level of acidity) are important, but so are microorganisms. It may be that the bacteria and fungi in the soil along a stream bank in Ohio are very different than along my own stream.

 

My grandfather, John Lenat (1885 to 1967), was not an educated man, but a wise one who was an organic gardener long before it was fashionable. He told my sister once, “When you transplant something, bring along enough soil so that it will remember where it came from.”  What he was saying, I think, is that you should bring along enough soil to inoculate your soil with the microorganisms from the site where it thrived.

 

Professor Dirr’s book is fun reading, too. He is opinionated and comes out with occasional wild statements – “with the right amount of imagination they (the flowers of Colutea arborescens) conjure visions of Yosemite Sam”, for example. So get your library to order a copy – or order your own.

 

Henry’s website is www.Gardening-Guy.com. He is the author of 4 gardening books. 

 

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Gardening in January

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



 

          For most of us, gardening in January is limited. Water the houseplants. Read the seed catalogs. Dream of flowering shrubs to add to the perennial border -  that sort of thing. But there are activities we can do now– and should.

 

Snow weighing down branch

Snow weighing down branch

In late December we had 4 inches of heavy wet snow, followed by cold weather. This resulted in heavy globs of snow and ice frozen to many of our decorative trees and shrubs, and considerable damage. In addition to broken limbs, many branches were bent to the ground – and might stay that way unless we do something.

 

I went around my garden to knock off snow, or to shake it loose from shrubs that were bent over or burdened by the snow. Some have responded nicely, popping back to their standard shapes, while others may not fully recover until spring.

 

Of those that bounced back, there is my arctic blue willow (Salix purpurea ‘Nana’). This shrub has varied in its form over the years: for several years it was a classic ‘Nana’ – which means that it was a slow-growing dwarf form. But since I started pruning it a few years ago (or perhaps it hit a teenage growth spurt) it has responded by putting out lots of new growth, sometimes growing as much as 3 feet in a season. I didn’t prune it last fall because the new growth was so distinctive: lots of fine vertical stems in close proximity to each other. It reminds me of a punk rockers hairdo – straight up.

 

That willow was bent over so that the tips of its branches (which were 6 feet tall or so) touched the ground. I went around gathering armfuls of branches and shaking them gently to shed the snow. The branches did not pop back up and I was worried that the shape of the shrub would be permanently changed. But a couple of days later it is back to its original shape.

 

I keep my Christmas tree up and in the house until it becomes almost dangerously dry, ready to explode at the first sign of a spark. I consider it a “winter tree” in the New Year and revel in its lights and all the memories the ornaments conjure up. (I have a felt and tinsel Santa from my Mom’s tree that probably came from Germany with her parents around 1900). But if you take down yours before the Ground Hog Day, you can use the branches in the garden.

 

Evergreen boughs are great to use to protect tender perennials and shrubs. Although we have had good snow cover so far this year, if we get a January thaw followed by very cold nights, frost and cold may penetrate the soil deeply and may kill the roots of tender plants. To prevent that, provide some insulation, particularly for new perennials and shrubs. Place branches over the plants, and then some mulch hay or straw over that. It’s like tucking in your baby at night.

 

A brief explanation is in order about why some tender shrubs and vines fail to bloom some years. Woody plants make their buds either the summer before and bloom early in the spring or summer on “old wood”. Or they make their buds in spring for summer or fall blooms on “new wood” that grows after winter is over. In the first category are forsythia, lilacs, blueberries and most wisteria. In the second are hydrangeas, summer clethra and Seven Sons Flower tree.

 

Shrubs that bloom on old wood can lose their blossoms when a cold, strong wind burns off the flower buds. The ‘Endless Summer’ blue hydrangea is sold as a plant that will bloom in June and repeat blooms all summer. But that only happens if the flower buds survive the winter, and often they do not – delaying bloom until late summer on new wood.

 

poppy seed pods

poppy seed pods

Another gardening activity I do when temperatures are below zero is to plant a few poppy seeds outdoors in the snow. I save the seed heads of annual poppies each year in a plastic bag. Then just when winter seems the most oppressive, I sprinkle seeds on the snow over a flower bed that has been cultivated and loose soil on its surface.

 

Even a cold winter sun will heat up a black poppy seed enough to allow it to melt its way through the snow. If I sprinkle a hundred seeds, at least a few will eventually lodge in suitable places and grow next summer. It’s no work, great fun, and it makes spring seem like a word that is within the realm of the possible -even if the thermometer is below zero.

 

Henry Homeyer is the author of 4 gardening books and a children’s novel, Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet. Reach him at henry.homeyer@comcast.net or PO Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746.

 

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Resolutions for 2014

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



 On a sunny winter day I walked around my property and made a list of projects I should do in 2014. I knew I’d find a few, but easily found a dozen. Maybe these will encourage you to make your own resolutions for the upcoming year – or volunteer to come help me with mine!

 

          In general I am pretty satisfied with my gardens. Yes, they always have some weeds – both in the vegetable garden and in my flower beds. I resolve to weed more in 2014, and, more importantly, to take my own advice and weed for at least a few minutes every day. Even 5 or ten minutes each day makes a big difference, I know it.

 

And there are some ‘vigorous’ plants that have taken over sections of some beds and need to be cleaned out or gotten under control. I resolve to work harder at doing so. I have some goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria) that has taken over a few places, and I know now that it is impossible to totally rid my gardens of it. Even if I were willing to use powerful chemical herbicides, which I am not, I cannot get rid of it. I will, however, work harder at keeping it contained. I will try to contain it with landscape fabric covered with bark mulch.

 

The small trees and shrubs growing round this large white pine will never be able to reach their full size. They will be shaded out and out-competed for water and soil nutrients.

The small trees and shrubs growing round this large white pine will never be able to reach their full size. They will be shaded out and out-competed for water and soil nutrients.

I need to clear out young trees that are popping up around older trees. Trees drop seeds, and too many of those seeds germinate and start to grow – even if they are just a few inches from a mature tree. These babies crowd existing trees, and basically have no future. Instead of letting a young maple grow six inches from a mature pine tree, better to cut if off at the base. This is work that I can do now,  before heavy snows fall. I can cut these fledglings off right at ground level.

 

It is time to add some limestone or wood ashes to my lawn around my maples. This is something I can do now. Maples suffer from the effects of acid rain: the much needed calcium in the soil gets dissolved and washes away. I have a few old sugar maples that are in poor health so I will give them a nice shot of calcium (in the form of wood ash) that I will spread around the trees. How much? I suppose I should get a soil test done and weigh out the quantity of ash according to a formula. But so long as I don’t add an excessive quantity, I feel a “good sprinkling” is fine.

 

This garden entry needs re-building

This garden entry needs re-building

I have two cedar structures that I built for supporting vines and both need some attention, which I resolve to give them in 2014. One is a simple entry way with a sloped “roof” that leads into my vegetable garden; it supports a clematis and a wisteria ‘Amethyst Blue’. The other is a hexagon with a tall teepee-like roof that supports a ‘Blue Moon’ wisteria and some grapes. The supporting structures are made from cedar fence posts (which last almost forever), but the thin branches of cedar I used for the roofs have started to rot and fall apart after 15 years or so. I was determined to make the repairs in 2013, but failed to do so.

 

I have some wetlands behind my stream that I have never utilized fully. The area is mostly grown up in willows and alders. This year I’d like to get rid of some of those, and plant more colorful shrubs: winterberry (Ilex verticillata), red- and yellow twigged dogwood (Cornus sericea) . I have planted some marsh marigolds in that area, but they are largely obscured. It’s time to clean out some of the volunteer growth. I want to keep it wild looking, not manicured, but I do love color in wintertime.

 

And speaking of willows, I have a willow that I planned to keep about 10 feet tall or so, but it has gotten to be more than twice that. I will do some radical pruning this year and next. One should never hack a tree back (I mean prune) more than 30% in a year, so I can’t do it all at once.

 

I have a Darwinian flower bed, one that I NEVER weed, one where only the fittest survive, but this coming year I resolve to do a little work there. The tall goldenrods, as much as I love them, have become too dominant. They are elbowing out the fall asters and a few other things. So I mowed the bed last fall, and will try to identify and dig up some of the goldenrods (Solidago spp.) in June. Maybe that will mean finding a young helper – or an intern – with a strong back to work with me.

 

I planted a spirea ‘Mellow Yellow’ in a dry shady place a few years ago after seeing one growing in a woodland garden in Lyme, NH. But mine has not developed the good color I saw there, so in 2014 I shall move it to a sunnier location. Shade comes in many varieties, and I think more sun will help this plant.

 

So that’s a good start with the garden resolutions. Send me yours, and if I get enough good suggestions, maybe I can do a column of reader resolutions. I’m at henry.homeyer@comcast.net or P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746. I will only use first names, so don’t be bashful! Include the town where you live, please. And all my best to you for the New Year!

 

Henry Homeyer is the author of 4 gardening books. His web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com.

 

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Exploring New Trees and Shrubs

Posted on Wednesday, December 18, 2013 · Leave a Comment 



 

            Snow has come. The leaves are raked. The garden is as put to bed as it’s going to get. It’s a good time to think about what worked this year and what didn’t. I was pleased with a number of new shrubs that I planted in the last two years and think you might like to keep them in mind next spring when the ground thaws.

 

            The very last shrub that I planted this year was – I have to admit- an impulse buy: scarlet beauty sweetspire (Itea virginica ‘Morton’). I was at E.C. Brown’s Nursery in Thetford, VT (www.ecbrownnursery.com) in mid-November to get a small tree for a special project. And there by the driveway was a shrub that still had its leaves, and they were bright red! I mean as red as burning bush (Euonymus elata) that shrub, loved by many but now banned in most states, that turns a brilliant red in fall. It called to me a soft voice,”I could be yours. I need a home before winter …” So it came home.

 

            According to the tag, it is a medium growing spreading deciduous broadleaf shrub with a height of 3 to 4 feet that spreads 2 to 4 feet. Before I decided on it, I checked my favorite plant reference text, Michael Dirr’s Guide to Woody Landscape Plants. It told me that it is hardy to Zone 5 –safely surviving winters of minus 20 degrees. The plant tag said it was hardy to Zone 4, which means it will survive 30 below zero. I decided to get one, even though we do see temperatures colder than 20 below, on occasion.

 

            Dirr’s book also described the flowers as white, lightly fragrant and about half an inch in diameter, blooming in early summer. He noted that given full sun and plenty of moisture the flowering can be “staggeringly beautiful”. That sounded good to me. Especially since the leaves were dramatic in their fall colors – and I have a nice wet spot near my stream. I am always leery of plants that spread by root, so I ‘ll keep an eye on this one to be sure it doesn’t take over.

 

Disanthus cercidifolius

Disanthus cercidifolius

Another nice shrub that I got in 2012 that had great fall foliage is the “redbud hazel” (Disanthus cercidifolius). Not a redbud or a hazel, this shrub has leaves that look like redbud leaves. The leaves turn a brilliant red early in the fall, with hints of orange and purple. I planted mine in 2012 and it overwintered nicely, but did not bloom this year. Though as I read Dirr’s book, I now notice that the flowers are “non-showy” half-inch diameter dark purple flowers that appear in October. So maybe there were a few, and I missed them in among the red foliage.

 

            Redbud hazel plants need light to moderate shade, along with deep moist soil that is rich in organic matter and protection from the wind. Mine is suitably planted, and has survived minus 20 degrees.  They can grow 6 to 10 feet tall, though mine did not show rapid growth in its first year.

 

            Another nice shrub that I planted in 2012 has many names: Carolina allspice, common sweetbush, sweet Bettie, spicebush and my favorite, sweet bubby. Which is. of course, why plant geeks like me prefer the Latin name: Calycanthys floridus. Don’t be intimidated by Latin nomenclature, just pronounce every letter – and say it with gusto and everyone will be sure you know what you are talking about (that works for me, anyway).

 

            Sweet bubby is, according to the literature, very adaptable: it will grow in sun or shade, acid or alkaline soil. But it does like rich, moist soil and I have plenty of that. I originally planted it in full sun, but the leaves scorched a little that first summer. I assumed that since I had kept it in the pot in a shady spot for a month or more, the scorching was just a reaction to the sudden shift to full sun. But it scorched again this year. So this fall I moved it to light shade near a big old wild apple tree.

 

            The flowers of Calycanthus are striking: deep maroon up to 2-inches across and they can be deliciously fragrant. But not all varieties are fragrant, so if the scent is important to you, buy in early summer when the blossoms are on the plants at the nursery. Some, I have read, may even smell like vinegar. Mine do not have a noticeable fragrance.

 

Calycanthus

Calycanthus

I have seen a Calycanthus that was 8 feet tall I in Woodstock, VT, but it was clearly a plant that had been around a long time. Mine has not grown much in the two years I have had it. It can spread 6 to 12 feet, and the two specimens I see regularly seem to be more interested in growing sideways than getting tall.

 

            The only other woody plants I installed this year were a couple of striped or moose maples (Acer pennsylvanicum). This is a small understory tree that I notice in the woods in winter – the bark turns a bright, light green with dark stripes. It is rarely sold in plant nurseries, so grab one if you see it for sale. It is said to grow even in terrible soil conditions, but likes moisture and acidic soil.

 

            We can’t plant anything now, but we can plan and dream.

 

Henry Homeyer is the author of 4 gardening books and a children’s fantasy-adventure about a boy and a cougar. His web sites are www.henryhomeyer.com and www.gardening-guy.com. He can be reached at PO Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746 or henry.homeyer@comcast.net.

 

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Holiday Decorations

Posted on Wednesday, December 11, 2013 · Leave a Comment 



 

            This time of year is tough on many gardeners: there is little daylight and little to do in the garden. And there are no flowers to pick and place on the table. Recently the weather has been dismal: dark gray days with precipitation off and on. Over the centuries people have combated the darkness with candles, bonfires, holiday lights and sprigs of greenery placed on the door or brought inside. Let’s look at what we can do.

 

            First, I regularly visit my local independent florist. Florists are a dying breed, along with independent bookstores and family-owned hardware stores. Call me an old codger, but I believe that there is value in supporting all of these institutions, even if I pay a dollar or two more for what I buy. The owners of these institutions have a wealth of knowledge, and are happy to help you find just what you need. And often their prices and quality are actually better.

 

For example, I believe that the flowers I get from my florist last longer and look better than flowers bought at a big box store. I ask my florist to put together a bouquet of flowers for me, and she picks a nice selection – $10 will usually buy a generous bouquet. 

 

Keeping the bouquet fresh takes regular maintenance: I change the water every day or two, and trim off half an inch of stem each time. It’s also important to remove all leaves that might get into the water. When the leaves die, bacteria grow and slime forms – blocking the uptake of water to the flowers. So they wilt.

 

A few years ago I called my florist to see if she had any potted phalaenopsis orchids for sale. Surprisingly, she told me to go to a big box store, and I did. I was amazed to see them for sale under $15. Certain big box stores obviously have suppliers who sell them truck loads of these hardy and gorgeous orchids. So most florists don’t even try to compete.

 

Phalaenopsis orchids are relatively easy to maintain and can be coaxed to produce more blossoms in future years. They want bright diffuse light: a table top in a bright room is fine. The key is to avoid overwatering. These orchids are sold growing in a fast-draining bark mixture without soil. The roots are in a plastic mesh pot with holes which sits inside a ‘cache’ pot that has no drainage hole. I lift the inner pot out of the outer, and allow water to run through the bark chips once a week. I allow it to drain, then return it to the cache pot. If you water the plant in the outer pot, it collects water at the base – eventually drowning your orchid.

 

I also scavenge twigs, branches, dry flowers and berries to add to flower arrangements, or to create arrangements in their own right. Each fall I cut hydrangea blossoms and store them in tall flower pots without water. They last well all winter.

 

Teasel

Teasel

Teasel is a dreaded weed for corn farmers in the Midwest, but I grow a few plants each summer and use it as a dry flower in winter arrangements. This plant is biennial, meaning that it blooms in its second year of life, and then dies. It gets to be over 6 feet tall and displays wonderful seed pods that have sharp barbs and spines. The key is to learn to identify the first year plants, so that you can weed out most of them before they mature. 

 

Evergreen boughs are nice indoors at this time of year.  Just be careful where you make your cuts. Never take the top of a small tree, or the tip of a prominent branch. Most do not replace the missing branch, or will send out several new branches instead of just one. So you can spoil the look of your evergreen by snipping branches carelessly. Cut inner branches, or take pieces from inconspicuous places.

 

Canadian hemlock is plentiful in woods everywhere, but the needles do not last well indoors. (Identify them by their short, flat needles). Your best bet is to buy a Christmas tree that is a little too tall – and the cut off branches at the base to use in vases or swags. White pine lasts well in a vase and is very common (Identify them by their 5 long, soft needles per cluster of needles, one for each letter in w-h-i-t-e).

 

Winterberry

Winterberry

Of the berries, the brightest and best looking is winterberry (Ilex verticillata), our native deciduous holly. These are understory trees or tall shrubs that grow wild in wet places and swamps, but also make satisfactory garden plants. They are dioecious, which means you need a boy bush to go with the females – or no berries. The berries are commonly sold by florists and grocers, and look great – though they tend to drop a few berries on the table before long. I don’t know how to keep that from happening. (Tell me if you do, please).

 

Last but not least, I am cheered up by outdoor winter lights. In recent years the industry has come up with LED lights that use almost no electricity – less than 5 watts a string instead of the 5 watts a bulb we had in my youth. So I place them in my garden on trees and shrubs and run them late into the winter. It’s all part staying cheerful while living in the Great North. 

 

Henry Homeyer lives in Cornish flat, NH. You may reach him through his web sites: www.henryhomeyer.com or www.Gardening-guy.com.

 

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