After arguably the coldest, snowiest winter on record, I am ready for spring. Okay, maybe the winter of 1934 was colder. So what? I still have snow, and my woodpile is pathetic. I am picking up sticks and burning soggy remnants of previous woodpiles. To keep my spirits up on raw, gray days, I plant seeds indoors.
I started back in March, planting artichokes, onions, leeks and peppers. Now I am planting the brassicas: Brussels sprouts, broccoli and kale. Those hardy souls can go out around the time of the last frost, even if the ground is still cool. My tomatoes, the queens of the garden, I will start closer to mid-April and go in the garden in June – well after the last frost – when the soil warms up to 60 or more.
One key to success with plants indoors is having enough light. A bright, sunny windowsill might be enough for the first couple of weeks in a plant’s life, but to grow good healthy tomato plants for 8 weeks requires artificial lighting.
Shop lights are relatively inexpensive: a two-tube, four-foot fluorescent fixture should cost under $20, plus the bulbs to go in them – which vary widely in price. You don’t need fancy “Gro-Lights”. Those mimic the spectrum of daylight, but for starting lettuce and tomatoes for the garden, ordinary cheap tubes work just fine. And if you can mix cool white and warm white tubes, you can have something close to daylight wave lengths.
A few years ago I built a simple wood A-frame plant stand that has worked out well for me. It uses 3 fixtures and will illuminate 6 flats of seedlings. I suggested at the time that your local lumber yard will be glad to take your parts list and cut lumber to the appropriate sizes. To get the directions, go to my website (www.Gardening-Guy.com) and type in “Plant Stand” in the search engine, and the article will come up. Or send me a self-addressed, stamped envelope and I will mail you the directions.
Another item that will help you is an electric heat mat to put under the flats while your seeds are getting ready to germinate. Most seeds have a protective mechanism to keep them from germinating too early. They need the soil to reach a certain temperature in order to know that winter has gone by. Garden centers sell 2 sizes: enough for one flat, or enough for four flats.
Last spring I started all my corn indoors in plug trays (containers with over 100 planting places per flat) and put them on a heat mat. They germinated in just 3 days – but would have taken 10 or more outdoors. Corn sometimes rots if the soil is cold and wet. Crows love to steal corn when it is first up, but I planted the seedlings when 3 inches tall and they rooted right in, so the crows didn’t steal a single one.
Moisture is another important factor when starting seeds indoors. Get your planting mix thoroughly moist before you plant. That can be done by placing a tray of planting soil in six-packs in a flat with water in it, and letting the water soak up from the bottom. Or pour water into the bag of soil mix the day before using it.
If the soil mix dries out when seeds are just starting to crack open and send out a rootlet, your seedlings will die. You can prevent that by covering the planted six packs with a plastic dome. These are clear plastic so you can see what is happening, and so that the seedlings that have germinated can get light while others are still waking up. By the time your seedlings are two inches tall, they will be crowding the dome and you should remove it.
Have you ever had bad germination rates? I have. It could be due to bad seed or old seed. In general it is best to buy new seeds every other year, even if you have plenty. Most seeds are good for 3 years or even longer – but at a lower germination rate.
But bad germination may also be due to the position of the moon and stars. I have been following a celestial calendar called “Stella Natura” (www.stellanatura.com) for a few years now, and although I can’t prove that its advice is right, I’ve had some interesting results.
I planted lettuce seeds on a “leaf” day, and then some more the following day, which was a “blackout” day (not recommended for planting anything). Even though I used the same seed package and planting mixture, I got a very low germination rate for seeds planted on a blackout day, but the others did well. The calendar has good days for planting fruits, flowers, roots and leaves. But this year I followed the calendar and still got very low germination for my artichokes, so who knows?
Remember when you calculate the cost of your tomatoes that building a plant stand for $50 and then buying lights for $100 is a multi-year investment. If you like messing around with plants in spring, starting seedlings indoors is a good idea. You can get rare and unusual seeds from catalogs that you would never find at your local farm stand. And, as one of my fridge magnets says, Gardening is Cheaper Than Therapy!
Henry Homeyer is a fruit tree pruner and gardening consultant. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746.
Often the snow on the hilly south side of my house has melted by early March, allowing snowdrops to push their little noses out of the ground and permitting me to pick buds that open up indoors. Most years by mid-March the snow has melted enough to allow me to get out and move around my apple trees to prune them. Not this year. Snow is still knee-deep here and not disappearing very quickly. It will be April before I get to do much pruning.
The first step in pruning is to really take a good long look at the tree. Are there dead branches? They must go. Are there branches rubbing? You must remove one or the other. What about what I call “invaders”? Invaders are branches that “see” an empty spot and grow willy-nilly through the center of the tree to grab the sunshine. Off with it! Is the interior crowded? If so, it needs work.
Where you make your pruning cuts is important for tree health. Don’t cut branches flush to the trunk or a bigger branch. Don’t cut into the swollen area at the base of a branch, an area called the branch collar. You can often see a distinct edge to the collar where the wrinkles in the bark in the branch collar stop and smooth bark of the branch begin. But don’t cut off branches too far from the trunk, either. That creates stubs that will die and slowly rot away – leaving an open wound where disease can enter.
In general, it is better to take a few bigger branches than lots of little ones. You can safely remove 20 to 25 percent of a tree’s leaves when pruning, though a well-tended tree won’t even need that much. The amount of wood is less important than the number of leaves, though that is a bit difficult to determine in winter. Pruning an old, neglected apple tree might be done with just a few cuts to remove big branches that are competing with the tree’s central leader or cluttering up the interior of the tree. Then in subsequent years you might work on smaller branches.
If you want blossoms and fruit, you can see if a branch will produce apples by looking for fruit spurs. Fruit spurs are gnarly little branches – usually just 3 or 4 inches long – that grow off bigger branches, branches that are at least two or three years old. At the tip of each spur is a cluster of buds that will produce leaves and flowers. If you are deciding whether to remove a branch, look for fruit spurs before cutting. Fruit spurs will not produce fruit in their first year.
Apples (and crabapples) tend to send up lots of waterspouts. These start as pencil-thick twigs shooting straight up from bigger branches. They are often a stress response: in summer they grow to produce leaves in the cool interior of a tree when the outer leaves have stopped producing food for the tree because it’s too hot. So even if you cut them out every year, more will come –often in the same place. Same varieties of trees send out a lot of water sprouts, others just a few. If you leave them in place, they will eventually become full sized nuisance branches cluttering up your tree.
A few words about bad crotches. Fruit bearing branches should be at an angle of 45 to 60 degree angle from the main trunk. A bad crotch angle (30 degrees or less) exist when there is a very tight angle between two stems. If the stems develop heavy fruit loads or are subject to heavy ice and snow loads, the weak crotch may break open, damaging the tree.
Breaking of bad crotches occurs because as the branches grow, they grow together, enclosing bark – and creating a week spot. Prune one of the two branches to correct the problem. Do this when a tree is young if you can. Some trees are more prone to bad crotches than others. Maples, for example, often are full of bad crotch angles (but don’t prune them in spring as they will bleed excessively).
Apples produce the most fruit on branches that are more horizontal than vertical. Sometimes I weight down young branches to make them more horizontal. A milk jug with some water in it will do the job – and you can increase the weight to just the right amount by tying on the jug and adding water. Do that in mid-April and remove it on the Fourth of July.
For me, pruning is not just about getting the most flowers or fruit from a tree, it’s about creating a beautiful form. In winter, especially, I enjoy looking at a well-pruned tree as sculpture. If a tree has big branches hacked off to create a tree with a short profile – as some are in commercial orchards – it is not pleasing to the eye. A tree that tapers toward the top and has nicely spaced branches looks good – and produces a good fruit load, too. Experts say that an apple tree should generally have a central leader or stem that dominates the tree and grows up the middle of it.
Pruning apple trees is one of my seasonal joys. I love sculpting the trees, making them lovely to the eye, healthier and more productive, too. A well pruned apple tree should have enough space between branches that a robin can fly through it – without getting hurt. Un-pruned tree? It’s a messy as an unmade bed. And climbing up an old apple on a blue-sky day to prune it makes me feel like a boy again. I can’t wait.
Henry Homeyer is a professional pruner and the author of 4 gardening books. Reach him at P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746 or email@example.com. His website is www.Gardening-Guy.com.
I am NOT going to kill my rosemary plant this March. Really. It is so easy to do, and most of us who grow rosemary have done it at least once. We get a perfectly nice rosemary plant through the winter, and then in March we kill it. Why? Because the sun is stronger, hotter, and because our plants are waking up after a winter’s semi-dormancy and starting to grow. All of that means our plants need more water.
I called Sarah Milek of Cider Hill Gardens in Windsor, Vermont, who is an expert grower of herbs (and all plants, really). She confirmed that rosemary needs more water now. And she said March is also a good time to re-pot rosemary. Your rosemary wants to put on new growth now, both roots and leaves. But if the roots are tangled and snarled, or if the pot is full of roots, the plant really cannot grow well.
I took my rosemary plant, which is growing in a 5 inch diameter pot, and knocked it out of the pot: I turned it upside down over the kitchen sink, and gave it a sharp rap on the bottom of the pot with the heel of my hand. Then, with a gentle tug, I slid it out of the pot. I was looking for dead, brown roots – signs of overwatering and decay that need to be removed – but saw none. The roots were light-colored and in good health. They did not break when tugged on.
Rather than using a bigger pot, I decided to cut back the roots a bit to stimulate new growth, and to allow me to add fresh potting mix to the pot. Sarah Milek suggests using a kitchen fork to open up the roots and loosen the potting soil attached to the roots. Then it’s easy to cut back the roots with scissors. But, Sarah warned, don’t be overly drastic. A gentle haircut is all that is needed.
I added three quarters of an inch of fresh potting soil at the bottom of the pot and placed my rosemary in it. Then I poured in fresh potting soil around the edges and tamped it down.
Sarah reminded me that rosemary likes to grow with some humidity in the air – which is tough for a household like mine that uses a woodstove every day. She suggested I place some gravel in a dish or pan, and then water the stones before placing the potted rosemary on top of the stones. I’ve also heard that spraying the leaves with a fine mist of water makes rosemary very happy – though my tough love approach to houseplants generally precludes that.
Temperature is important for success with rosemary, and houseplants in general. Most plants do not want a very warm spot, so keep them away from radiators and wood stoves. In this season a south or west-facing window can get pretty hot in the afternoon, so an eastern exposure is better.
I asked Sarah Milek what other houseplants needed attention at this time of year. She mentioned geraniums (Pelergonium spp.). Most of us grow geraniums for their big red, pink or white blossoms that shine on seemingly forever. But in the course of a winter indoors, many have gotten leggy – with long stems, that is. The solution? Cut them back now. I generally cut back to a node, and then take the cutting and root it in water.
Sarah says rooting geraniums is better done in moist perlite. Perlite, the fluffy white stuff in potting mix, can be purchased in bags at the garden center. It is not Styrofoam, which it resembles, but a heat-expanded mineral made like popcorn in an industrial oven at very high temperatures. It holds moisture well but also releases it to plants when needed. It has a neutral pH. Sarah says you should tent your geranium cuttings – put them in a clear plastic bag so that they do not lose moisture.
Perlite is very light weight, so larger cuttings can easily tip over if using a lightweight plastic pot. A heavier ceramic pot would prevent that, or you could place stones or sand in the bottom of a plastic pot. Perlite provides no nutrition so once they are rooted, you need to give them a light dose of fertilizer weekly. Fish or seaweed fertilizer diluted to one quarter the regular dose is fine.
Other indoor activities for the cabin-fever-feeling gardener include starting some vegetables of flowers from seed. I have started onions, leeks and artichokes – all plants that need a long time from seeding to maturity. In mid-March I will plant hot pepper seeds, and then tomatoes, broccoli, kale and other veggies in early to mid-April.
If you have never grown artichokes, you might want to. There are several kinds of seeds available, including Green Globe, Purple of Romagna, Opera and ‘Imperial Star’. In past years when growing Green Globe artichokes, I followed the dictum that you must move them into a 50 degree growing space for 2 weeks at the 3 or 4 leaf stage to fool them into thinking they had lived through a winter. That meant setting up lights in my cold basement. But Imperial Star and Opera (a purple one I have not yet tried) are both grown for annual production, and do not need that cold period. Much easier. My artichoke plants produce 3-7 small chokes each year, but are also very pretty plants suitable for a flower garden.
Spring is just around the corner – and my rosemary plant knows it. It’ll be happier since this year I’m being attentive to its needs.
Henry is a UNH Master Gardener and the author of 4 gardening books. His book The New Hampshire Gardener’s Companion will be out in an expanded second edition later this month. His website is www.Gardening-Guy.com.
When I packed my bags to go to Maui recently I thought about packing my CobraHead weeder. But in the rush of getting ready I neglected to do so. I wish I had. That’s right, I like to garden even when I go on vacation. There are always opportunities to help out, and to learn. A winter vacation in a warm place can offer more than just a tan and some relaxation.
A friend told me about an organic farm on Maui that serves developmentally disabled adults and sells organic fruits and vegetables to the community. I called the farm and offered a day of help; my three traveling companions accompanied me. It was a wonderful day – and helped me to feel a little less guilty about the carbon emissions of that big silver bird that brought me to Maui.
Lokelani ‘Ohana Farm is unlike any I have visited before. It is just over an acre in size and produces 10 kinds of bananas including thumb-sized bananas and “apple” bananas, my favorites. Apple bananas are half the size of bananas we know from the store with a rich flavor that makes ordinary bananas seem as bland as Wonder Bread. There had been a severe tropical storm just before we had arrived on Maui, and some of the banana plants had blown down. We helped by cutting up downed stalks and lugging them off to compost piles. And I got to do some weeding – while it was 20 below back home.
Lokelani Farm is a “vibrant sustainable ‘Ohana where “people with disabilities live, learn and work together with reverence for spirit, creativity and nature, supporting each other’s potential and sharing a life of purpose.”, according to the vision statement in their brochure.
Christina Chang, the director of the farm and programs, told me that the programs have been in existence just since 2005 and are modeled on the Camp Hill initiative of Pennsylvania. Camp Hill has farms and programs that serve developmentally disabled adults in several locations in the northeast. Their farm programs are organic and biodynamic. At Lokelani adults participants learn not only how to garden, but also Saori weaving and other craft skills, and develop better social skills.
So if you wish to help out for a day or more on your next vacation, how should you find a good place to do so? Before heading off to Florida or Nassau or France, do a little research on the internet. Twice before this experience I have worked on farms, once in France and once in the Hebrides off Scotland. Both allowed me to learn as well as to help.
In my previous experiences I had joined the WWOOFer program: World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. It matches up volunteers with organic farms for short term work experiences. I worked about a week on each of the farms where I “woofed”; some farms have restrictions about how long a worker must stay and help – a week or a month minimum, for example. In general, woofers get room and board provided and work 4 to 6 hours a day, five days a week. Lokelani had 3 woofers working on the farm the day we were there, but we were not a part of the official WWOOFer program. In general other woofers that I have met have been in their twenties and thirties, but there are no age restrictions.
In order to see what is available, go to the website www.wwoof.net. The website will not give you farm locations or contact info – they want you to pay first to join – but you can see what sorts of jobs and farm placements are available before you join. In the United States the fee to become a WWOOFer is $40. In France it is 25 Euros.
You need to join the WWOOF organization for the country you are interested in – you cannot join once for all of Europe, for example. The web site allows you to sort the farms according to your requirements for length of stay, accommodations, type of food provided. Thus you can select omnivore, vegetarian or vegan diet, and only farms that can provide that will show up on your search.
I also found that there are other organic farms on Maui, some of which provide accommodations and the opportunity to learn and take classes. So you don’t have to sign up to be a woofer if you want to spend some time gardening in winter.
So what did I learn at Lokelani that day? I learned that bananas are incredibly resilient. Cut off the top of the plant, and the roots and base will generate a new stem. The leaves make a great mulch – they will block out sunshine and hold down weeds. I learned what a breadfruit tree (and the fruit) look like, and what macadamia nuts look like right from the tree. I met some very interesting people. I learned that Lokelani is a wonderful non-profit (www.lokelaniohana.org) that is trying to not only help adults with disabilities, but to help the broader community to accept and understand the special love and creativity of people with disabilities.
So think about spending some time on a farm next time you vacation. I’m glad I did.
Henry Homeyer is not answering gardening questions this week. His Web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com. He is the author of 4 gardening books.
At this time of year I need all the help I can get. Cloudy gray days do not make me cheerful. Days that end at 4pm do not please me. I counteract the dark with lights, flowers on the table, greenery (and maybe a little chocolate). This year I decided to make a kissing ball to hang from my chandelier in the living/dining area.
Kissing balls have a long history. During the Middle Ages villagers would hang balls of evergreens with a clay figure representing the Baby Jesus inside. Later, during the Victorian era, people would poke greens, particularly sweet-smelling greens, into apples or a potatoes and them and hang them in the house.
But they fell into disfavor, and mistletoe remained as the primary green hung in the house during much of the 1900’s. Mistletoe, of course allowed high-spirited youth to steal a kiss if a maiden was “accidentally” standing under the mistletoe. In this day of lawyers, no one wants to sell mistletoe because the berries are quite poisonous. But now decorated evergreen balls are back, being sold as kissing balls. I recently made one.
When I made my plans I didn’t think of an apple or a potato as the center of the ball. I bought a grapefruit and a large orange. But ultimately I decided I needed something longer lasting, and went to my local garden center to see if I could buy a ball of “Oasis”. Florists use Oasis to hold flowers and greens in place in arrangements while allowing them to absorb water. No one had balls of Oasis for sale, so I bought a 3 by 9-inch block.
I started the project by getting a variety of greens. I bought a small bundle of boxwood and cut branches of balsam fir, white pine, evergreen azalea and rhododendron.
Boxwood is loved by many gardeners: it is well behaved, slow-growing and has very small evergreen leaves that are a shiny green all year. They make great miniature hedges. I have avoided it because in the old days it was marginally hardy here. Now we have varieties that sneer at temperatures of 25 below and colder. Korean boxwood varieties such as Green Gem, Green Velvet and Green Mountain shouldn’t suffer winter burn or winter kill.
Oasis is very easy to cut. I used a long serrated bread knife, but you could use any knife. I soaked the sphere in water for 15 minutes or so, rotating it a few times and holding it under water so the entire thing would be well soaked. Then I took an old fashioned wire coat hanger and cut out a section. I kept the top hook portion, one angled side and the bottom wire. I straightened it out with a pair of needle nose pliers, and pushed it through the globe. I then twisted the bottom inch of wire to a right angle, and slipped a big fender washer on it to help support the sphere once I hung it, and to keep the delicate Oasis from being damaged by the wire.
I hung the ball from my chandelier and began the easy part: decorating it. I cut pieces of greenery into roughly 6-inch pieces, and gently poked them into the Oasis. I started at the top, creating concentric circles of white pine, then boxwood, balsam fir, another layer of boxwood, then azalea and rhododendron, and finally finishing up with more boxwood. Once I passed the “equator” I turned the leaves so that the shiny side would be facing down.
I used my pocket knife to shave off needles of the fir (which did not pull off easily), and to remove any lumps in the stems. On thicker branches, I shaved of a little wood to make a thinner branch to poke into the Oasis.
At the very bottom I attached a bow made of red ribbon, wiring it onto the hook at bottom after removing the washer. That insured that the wire would not pull though the Oasis, which is very delicate.
It was gorgeous. A globe of green with a nice variety of textures and colors of green. All it needed was some red berries. So my dog Daphne and I jumped in the car and drove to the nearest swamp. I had put on my tall boots, just in case some wading was required. Little did I know.
Our native holly, which loses its leaves, is called winterberry (Ilex verticillata). In the wild it lives in swamps, but is also a good landscape plant with loads of bright red berries. It is dioecious, meaning it has male and female plants; if you want berries, buy a male to go with your females (one male can service several females).
I cut some branches for my kissing ball and was leaving the swamp when, with a crack, I fell through the ice and water filled my boots. If I’d been captured on camera I might have started a new trend –icy water in boots instead of a bucket of ice water on the head. I laughed. Later, I poked stems of red berries into the kissing ball. It certainly brightens up the room, and I grin when I remember getting those red berries.
Henry Homeyer lives in Cornish Flat, NH. His books are available from his web site, www.Gardening-Guy.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746.
I know people who say we shouldn’t be cutting down trees just to brighten our houses for the holidays. Trees are, after all, sequestering carbon and making our environment cleaner, greener, and all that. I say “Bah Humbug!” and will cut a fresh tree from my neighborhood tree farmer. But if you want to be a Greenie, here is what you need to know about using a live tree with the idea of then planting it outside after the holidays.
First know that chances of survival are only 50-50 or thereabouts. Planting a tree in New England in January is not easy. For starters, the ground may be frozen. And keeping a tree hydrated and happy in the house is a challenge, even for an attentive tree steward. But let’s see how you can improve your odds. I’ve never had a live tree in the house, so I spoke with Norm Longacre, of Longacre’s Nursery in Lebanon, NH for some helpful hints.
Norm said that you should think small. A six-foot tree will have a big, heavy rootball, and will be harder to move and harder to plant. Think three to four feet tall, maximum, and even smaller if you can. The best? A tabletop tree.
He said to buy a fir or spruce that has been grown in a plastic container, not one that is recently dug up or wrapped in burlap. Place the tree in the coolest part of the house – and never near a radiator or woodstove.
I suggest that you think where the tree will be planted after the holidays before you buy one. Too many times I’ve seen a huge blue spruce towering over a nice little ranch house, blocking out the sun from the big picture window. Why? Because the tree was small and cute when the owner of the house bought it, and he never thought about its ultimate size.
Balsam fir (Abies balsamea) is one of the classic Christmas trees. In the wild it will grow to be 45 to 75 feet tall with a spread of 20 to 25 feet. This is not the tree to place close to the house. There are a few cultivars that are supposed to stay small, but mostly such trees just grow slower than the standard varieties. In 40 years, a dwarf may no longer be a dwarf.
Blue spruce (Picea pungens) is another good-sized tree in the wild, 30 to 60 feet tall with a spread of 20 to 30 feet. There are spruce that stay small, I have read. ‘Blue Kiss’ is one that, after 40 years growing in Ohio, is reported to be only 8 feet tall and 10 feet wide. But that’s still enough to block most windows. So choose the location well.
I would buy a bale of hay or straw now and spread a thick layer of it over the soil at the site where you will plant your tree to serve as insulation. Between now and January it is likely we will have some very cold days. And unless we have a thick layer of snow, the top few inches of soil can be frozen solid by the time you want to plant your tree outdoors. Yes, you can break up frozen soil with a pick ax, but do you want to?
I would also buy a few bags of topsoil now and store them in a warm basement. Then if the soil is frozen when it’s time to plant, and you hack it out, you can backfill the hole with soil that is not in frozen chunks. You will want some bark mulch or wood chips to spread over the soil once the tree is planted, too.
Instead of keeping a live tree in the house for a month, the way many of us do with cut trees, think about having it indoors for just a week or 10 days. That will reduce the stress on the tree considerably. Keep the soil lightly moist, but not soggy.
When the time comes to plant your tree, be sure that you dig the hole the appropriate depth. Never plant a tree in a hole that is deeper than necessary. Look for the trunk flare, that part of the tree that would be above ground if growing in the wild. Keep that flare above ground and do not cover it with bark mulch. To do so is to consign your tree to an early death. The bark will rot if covered with soil or mulch, and the tree will decline in 6 to 10 years. Many trees come in the pot with the trunk flare covered with soil, so you may have to expose it when you plant. And don’t forget to water your tree after you plant it!
And what about all those cut trees we see for sale on empty lots, selling to people like me? They are a crop, like corn or beans. They provide a livelihood for tree farmers and are great for boon to our environment. I buy one every year and feel not an iota of guilt.
One nice thing about buying a cut tree that reaches the 10-foot ceiling in my house is this: after the holidays I will cut off all the branches and use them to provide some protection for less hardy plants that might be harmed by cold winter winds. I will layer them over perennials that are “iffy” in my climate, or use them to protect roses or other shrubs that might be damaged by the cold.
So go ahead and buy a live tree for the house if you wish, but please remember the words of Norm Longacre. “Don’t hold your nurseryman responsible if your tree doesn’t survive.”
Henry Homeyer is a UNH Master Gardener and the author of 4 gardening books. His Web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com.
It’s that time of year again: time to find the perfect present for Aunt Edna, Uncle Bob and everyone else we love. Gardeners on my list are pretty easy to buy for because there are so many wonderful gifts to choose from, including selections under $10 (Atlas nitrile gardening gloves, packets of my favorite seeds) to expensive coffee table books and wheelbarrows that cost $300 or more. Let me offer a few suggestions.
Let’s start at the high end. One of my coaching clients this summer wanted some raised beds that were actually tall enough so that she wouldn’t have to bend over. She ordered some ‘VegTrugs’ from Gardener’s Supply (www.gardeners.com or 802-660-3500). These are wood growing containers made of fir that are about 6 feet long, 30 inches wide and 32 inches tall – about the same height as your kitchen table.
The VegTrug is V-shaped in cross-section and lined with a fabric that keeps soil from washing through between the slats. This container is deep and hold 380 quarts of soil mix – about 10 bags. We filled it with a 50-50 mix of compost and topsoil bought in bulk, and added some perlite and peat moss to keep the soil fluffy. It performed very well, growing tomatoes and eggplants in the middle, and shallow rooted things like lettuce and basil along the edges. At $249, it’s an investment, but well designed and it should last for years. Gardener’s Supply has a number of other kinds of raised beds. My client assembled her VegTrug in about an hour, and some of the others are even simpler.
Weeding is the least fun part of gardening for many, and anything that helps to reduce weed numbers is a good gift. A few years ago I got some rolls of weed mat that came with pre-punched holes spaced appropriately for growing tomatoes, or lettuce – or you name it. This is a woven polypropylene mat that the maker claims will last 10 years.
The mats come in 4-foot wide strips with evenly spaced holes in 8 different sizes and spacings. They block out light, keeping weeds from growing, while also moderating temperature and water loss. From 10.99 for a 6-foot piece to $30.99 for an 18-foot length. Made in Vermont, available from www.GardenMats.com or by calling 802-498-3314.
Each year I remind readers that in my opinion the best weeding tool made is the CobraHead weeder (www.CobraHead.com or 866-962-6272). This is a single steel finger, curved and sharp, that will get under weeds and lift them out, tease out grass roots or prepare the soil for planting. It is $24.95, including shipping. Made in America, too.
Watering well is important in dry times. Plants need gentle streams of water that can best be delivered by a watering wand. These devices have long metal handles with a rose (water sprayer) on the end. The best wands are made by Dramm, but many knock-offs are sold, too. Go for the best. Why? They have figured out how to aerate the water so that lots of water can come out, fast, but gently. My wand allows me to walk along and get water where I want it: on the ground, near the plants, but not on the foliage. Available at good garden centers everywhere. About $20.
Books are loved by gardeners. Designing flower gardens? An excellent book is by Julie Moir Messervy, Landscaping Ideas that Work (Taunton Press, $21.95). This is a good overview and introduction to the basics of landscape design, starting with a checklist of the atmosphere, activities and features you would like. It is simple and straightforward with lots of color pictures. Granted, the pictures are mostly of expensive houses and projects, but she gives readers an idea of relative cost of various options (brick walkways, or stone, or packed earth) by using 1 to 4 dollar signs next to each.
The New Vegetable Growers Handbook: A users manual for the organic vegetable garden by Frank Tozer (distributed by Chelsea Green Publishing, $27.95) is an excellent reference text for anyone who grows veggies. It has detailed growing information on nearly 100 different veggies and has great tips on practical matters such as how to avoid getting bitter-tasting cucumbers or how day length affects the size of your onions, and why you should plant them early in spring. Want to try new greens? Tozer tells you how to grow Komatsuna and Mizuna and Mibuna and more. By the way, Chelsea Green Publishing (www.chelseagreen.com) has lots of other good gardening and permaculture books worth looking at.
Record keeping is important if you want to improve your gardening skills and to learn from past years. The Moleskine Company (www.moleskine.com) makes many journals, including a gardening journal that offers 240 pages, including space to record your efforts and useful information such as hardiness zones. It has design grids for planning and adhesive labels for personalizing sections. It’s $19.95 and found at many bookstores.
Santa Claus, if you’re listening, what I really want this year is another load of manure. Just have your reindeer drop a load of black garden gold anywhere near my vegetable garden. A pick-up truck load would be great or, if you think I’ve been a very good boy a dump-truck load!
Henry Homeyer has his own gardening books, signed, available from his web site, www.Gardening-Guy.com.
I love to ski and snowshoe. I don’t mind shoveling snow and lugging in firewood for the woodstove the chugs along day and night now. But there are limits to my patience, and by March I’ll ready for green growing things and some fresh flowers. So I start lots of veggies and flowers by seed, starting in March and April. But I also force bulbs to bloom indoors in March. Now is the time to do so.
Most bulbs are described on their packages as early, mid-season or late. Go to your local garden center and ask for bulbs that are early bloomers because they are the best for forcing. Buy daffodils, some tulips and maybe some small bulbs like crocus or snowdrops. You can plant these bulbs in large pots or even in your window box that is, by now, cleaned out and stored in the garage or barn.
You will also need some potting soil and compost. I make a mix that is half compost, half potting soil for forcing bulbs. I don’t use garden soil because it can be heavy and often stays wet. Bulbs can rot if they are left in wet soil for too long.
I recently planted 25 daffodils in a window box that is about 30 inches long, 6 inches wide and deep. It was a mix of different kinds of daffodils. I prefer to get all of one kind so that they all bloom at once, but the mixed bag was what was available (and on sale).
I filled the window box a little more than half full with my mixture of compost and potting soil and placed the bulbs, pointy end up, in the soil. Once I had them all in place I pushed them down more and filled up the box with more potting soil-compost mixture. Bulbs for forcing can be planted shoulder to shoulder, or nearly so.
In order to prepare bulbs for early blooming indoors, you will need a place to store them that is cold, but not as cold as the outdoors. Despite global warming, I still see minus 20 every winter, even if for only a few days. Bulbs planted in the ground have some protection against the cold, but if you were to plant bulbs in pots and leave them outside, the extreme temperatures would kill most. Bulbs left in a cool basement or garage will do just fine. Inside the bulkhead to your cellar might be the right temperature, too.
Ideally temperatures for bulbs used for forcing will be between 25 and 50 degrees, though colder temperatures should not be a problem (my basement often goes below freezing). Left in a warm location, the bulbs will grow green tops – but not blossoms.
You need to be aware that rodents like eating bulbs (indoors or out) – especially tulips. My basement has, most years, harbored mice and even sometimes red squirrels. In fact, I have learned the hard way that indoor rodents can – and will – dig up and eat tulips. So now I keep my pots of tulips covered with hardware cloth (a fine-mesh metal screening available at hardware stores). But wear gloves if you cut hardware cloth to size – the edges are as sharp as razor wire. Daffodils, on the other hand are not of interest to rodents as they are mildly poisonous.
You can double your production of blooms by planting two layers of bulbs in a container. Plant big bulbs deep in the pots, add soil, and then plant a layer of crocus or other small bulbs above them. To avoid planting the little guys right over the big boys, you can mark the location of the deeper bulbs with straw from a broom. That way they won’t get pushed over as the daffodils come up. Or you can just take your chances.
Don’t wait until mid-December to start your bulbs, get on this project now. Daffodils take about 12 weeks of dormancy before they should be brought into the warmth of the house, and tulips do better with 4 full months. Planted now, they would be ready in mid-March. Little things like crocus can be forced in 8 to 10 weeks.
It is important to check on the bulbs you are forcing at least once a month, particularly if you have put wire rodent-proofing over the containers. I’ve had shoots get damaged by trying to grow through the hardware cloth. If the bulbs are sending up shoots, remove the wire mesh. I also don’t want the soil mix to get bone dry, so I check it and water a little if it is too dry. The bulbs will grow roots when first planted, and then go dormant if kept in a dark, cold location.
When it is time to bring up your potted bulbs into a warm place, let them wake up gently. My mudroom is good for starting them: there is some sunshine but it is cool. Then, once the shoots are up and green, I place the containers on my sunniest window sills – either east or west facing.
I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon, West Africa many years ago. There I could have flowers blooming outside every day of the year. It spoiled me, perhaps, because I still want flowers every day. Forcing bulbs is one way to have lots of blossoms when there is still snow on the ground.
Henry Homeyer is the author of 4 gardening books. His Web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com. You may also reach him by e-mail at email@example.com.
I took a walk this week along a country road and was delighted by the colors of the fall leaves. The reds –maples, largely – have fallen, but the yellows and browns are still on some trees and lovely. And once you develop an appetite for the less flashy leaves, you may want to plant a tree that will do”the late show” in years to come.
The oaks and beeches are particularly nice right now. Oaks hold onto to their leaves much later than the maples, developing a more subtle coloration: browns mixed with russet or carmine or maroon. Perhaps burnt umber. Worldwide there are some 500 species of oaks, but here in the wild forest, just a few. Seven are listed by Cooperative Extension as native to New Hampshire, but only two are common: northern red oak (Quercus rubra) and white oak (Q. alba). Additionally there are many pin oaks (Q. palustris) that have been introduced and used as good tough street trees. In fact, I’ve read that pin oak is the most commonly planted tree in America.
Oaks generally fall into two categories. Red oaks have leaves with pointed tips on their lobes; those with rounded leaf edges without any sharp points are considered white oaks. Red oaks produce acorns that only germinate after a cold period of 30 to 60 days in a process called stratification, while white oaks can germinate right away. The Washington oak, a white oak in Princeton, NJ, is over 275 years old.
Oaks, and nut trees in general, have tap roots that go down deep in the soil. White oaks really are best started by planting acorns, or getting a small tree at a nursery. By the time a white oak has a trunk that is two and a half inches in diameter, it’s too big to move. Pin oaks, one of the red oaks, have fibrous roots that are near the soil surface and can be planted or moved more easily.
Acorns have always fascinated little children (and me). They are shiny, smooth and shapely. They feel good when in your pocket. They have a little hat that stays on while on the tree, but falls off once ready to be planted. Acorns that are fertile always lose their caps, so don’t plant one wearing a cap.
Beeches (Fagus grandifolia) are also wonderful at this time of year. Like the oaks, beeches hang on to their leaves – some of the young trees keep their leaves until May, when new leaves push them off the branches. And although the fall color is yellow, never red, some will display stripes of green in leaves while the yellows develop. Eventually, they all turn brown and produce a nice sound as the dry leaves are teased by winter breezes.
Beeches have smooth gray bark that is splendid in winter. But many beeches suffer from a fungal disease which mars the bark and kills off older specimens. The trees are attacked by a scale insect that damages the bark, allowing a fungal disease called Nectria to infect the trees. According to a US Forest Service pamphlet, the scale insect arrived from Europe in the 1890’s and, like many foreign pests, had few enemies here in North America (it first appeared in Nova Scotia). These is no easy remedy if your beech trees are infected.
Another great tree for yellow leaves in the fall is the bottle brush buckeye (Aeseculus parviflora), a member of the horsechestnut family. I just planted one this fall because it has great spring flowers, will blossom nicely in the shade or part shade, and tolerates moist soil. I had just the right spot. The brilliant yellow fall leaves were a bonus.
My hybrid ‘Merrill’ magnolia has great yellow fall color, too. And if you get up close to the tree, you can see that it is loaded with small, bright red berries nestled in their pods. The buds for next year’s flowers are on the tree, too, and will become more noticeable once the leaves and seeds have dropped. The buds look like pussywillow buds on steroids.
At this time of year the weather tends to be a bit gloomy. Rainy cold weather is not much fun, and the sun sets by supper time. So what can a gardener do? Plant some acorns. My friend Joe Monninger of Plymouth, NH went out one fall about 10 years ago and planted a bunch of acorns. I called him this week to see how they did.
Ten years later- despite squirrels, lawn mowers and weed whackers – four of Joe’s acorns have grown to stand waist high. Not bad. He hadn’t done anything to improve the soil, he hadn’t fenced them to keep away deer. He just poked some holes in the ground and planted acorns. Even if he planted 25, he has four nice trees – and that’s not a bad return on his labor, if you ask me. If you plant some acorns, put one of those little white plant labels near each one so you will be careful to avoid stepping on them when young – or mowing them down. And in 300 years they might still be alive and producing acorns.
I believe in enjoying what I have. Take time, I say, to slow down and really look at the subtleties of nature and the garden. Red is not the only good fall color.
Henry is the author of 5 books. His web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com. You may send questions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
At this time of year I eat one of the “three B’s” from my garden every day: broccoli, Brussels sprouts or kale. All right, don’t get on my case. I know kale doesn’t start with a “B”. But it’s a brassica, the family that contains those other two, plus cabbage, rutabagas, cauliflower, kohlrabi and more. All are good cold weather crops.
In addition to surviving frosts, all the brassicas are healthy foods with lots of Vitamin C, soluble fiber and compounds thought to prevent cancer (though that is a little controversial). What you may not know is that boiling brassicas removes most of those cancer-fighting compounds, but steaming them or cooking them in a microwave dos not. Three to four minutes of steaming will cook your brassica nicely, but not steal many nutrients. But the best way to eat them is raw.
There are many varieties of broccoli, almost all are excellent. Arcadia is one that has done well for me, and is very cold hardy. I talked to my friend Chaz Meyers of Cornish Flat, N.H., who I think of as Mr. Broccoli. He and his wife, Jill Johnson, grow about 50 plants every year, freezing it and eating it all year. He told me that ‘Packman’ is favorite, in part because it produces lots of side shoots. He also likes ‘Waltham’ and ‘Gotham’ varieties.
Chaz recommends cutting the primary head of broccoli on an angle so that the stem, which is often a bit hollow, does not hold water (which might promote rot). He also suggests, if the summer is dry, watering your broccoli well after cutting the big head. That keeps the plant healthy and promotes the development of side shoots.
I once planted a little vegetable garden for a woman who didn’t know much about gardening. I planted two broccoli plants that produced magnificent heads in July. She ate them, with glee, and then pulled out the plants. Yikes! I regretfully explained that the most productive part of the plant are all those little “side shoots” that come after the main head. That, like the Energizer Bunny, broccoli keeps on producing for months. I’m still eating side shoots from plants I put in back in June.
Although broccoli are known for having little green caterpillars on them, mine have not had any this year – or none that I’ve seen. Maybe I’ve eaten a few. The best solution to the green caterpillar problem is just to soak the broccoli in cold water with a little salt in it before cooking. They will float up.
I dare say that my Brussels sprouts are perfect right now. Each is the diameter of a quarter- or a half dollar – and unbothered by any pests or diseases. I eat some every night for dinner: a dozen is just the right sized serving for me, so my six plant will keep me eating them for weeks. Brassicas are very hold hardy, and Brussels sprouts and kale will survive temperatures down to 20 degrees – or even colder. Frost helps to sweeten up their flavors.
Deer don’t bother my garden until it gets cold. Then they look for my Brussels sprouts and kale and broccoli. Once they waited until the night of December 24 to eat my Brussels sprouts, though that might have been the reindeer, waiting while Santa was inside the house. I recently took some preventive measures. I covered my kale with a scrap of chicken wire that I just draped over my plants, and then I surrounded the Brussels sprouts with some four-foot chicken wire. The broccoli will have to fend for itself – I’ve run out of fencing.
Kale is the perfect vegetable to freeze. Unlike spinach, it doesn’t get soggy when frozen. It keeps its character. I blanch it for a minute in boiling water. That kills the aging enzymes that would make it turn old and woody after just a few months in the freezer. When I take it out, I drop it into a sink full of cold water, spin it dry in my salad spinner, pat it dry with a tea towel, and put it in freezer bags. I suck out the air in the bags with a drinking straw. The straw goes into a zipper bag that is 99% closed, and I suck out the air. I snap the bag shut as I pull out the straw, and it’s ready to go in the freezer.
I know people that are gaga about kale chips, dried kale that is salty and crispy, the health-nut food to substitute for potato chips. I recently tried making my own but I’m neutral about them. Here’s what I did: I stripped the leaves off the central stem, and tore the leaves into pieces and put them in a big bowl. I coated them with a garlic and olive oil solution (I used 3 cloves garlic and a few tablespoons of oil). I sprinkled pepper flakes or nutritional yeast on the leaves and tossed some more. I added salt, but not a lot.
Then I put some kale chips in the oven at 150 degrees for 2 hours with the convection fan blowing, others in a food dehydrator at 135 degrees for 2.5 hrs. Maybe I needed to use more salt or oil, but I was aiming for a health food. And this tasted like something a little too healthy. Oh well. They’re crispy, but they’re definitely not as good as potato chips. Darn!
Eating the brassicas from my garden at this time of year is a wonderful way to transition to winter. I have food in the freezer from the summer, and root crops stored in the cellar. But it feels great to walk to the garden with a knife and cut something fresh for dinner.
Henry Homeyer is a gardening educator, speaker and writer. Reach him at email@example.com.