blog post feed en-us <![CDATA[How to Plant Healthy Trees]]>

I know this is the age of instant gratification, but — this being the season — let's hear it for planting young trees. The rewards (I speak from experience) are huge: a personal forest or great big hedge isn't simply a visual treat, a haven for Our Friends The Birds and a way to help fight global warming. It's also a shelter from road intrusions, wind and whatever lies next door.

Even a single tree offers most of these benefits, and if it provides shade from summer sun it gets extra points, for making it easier to turn off the air conditioner.

All this and money too. As long as you don't overpay at the start, trees are a terrific investment. Deposit a 4- to 6-footer now, enjoy a major increase in property value when it hits the 14-foot mark — or, of course, soars beyond.

trimming a hedge of trees

My husband Bill trimming our hemlock hedge. That's a 12-foot ladder.

The hedge in the picture is about a hundred trees long, so it had to start out as young ones. We paid 5 or 10 bucks apiece — this being 12 years ago, more or less — for an assortment of rather spindly 4- to 5-footers. Two years later, when the tallest had barely hit 6 feet and all were still more promise than performance, I got antsy. Bought a bunch of 10-footers, at about 40 bucks a pop, to plant in front of the most grievous eyesore.

Sure enough it did make an immediate difference, but the little guys only took two or three more years to catch up, and once they did that was it for the benefit. Annual pruning evened it all out. Now that every tree in the hedge is 14 to 16 or more feet tall, you can't tell which is which.

Other benefits of starting small:

* Small trees suffer less damage when taken from the field, so they recover more quickly when planted (big trees usually stay the same height for at least a couple of years; they're too busy repairing their roots to do much of anything else).

* Small trees are DIY, which matters huge when you're talking about a lot of them. You can pick up a 4-footer without serious consequences for your back. You can dig a hole for it without taking all day, and you can keep it watered...even a skinny 8-foot tree needs about 20 gallons of water each week, more if the weather is hot and windy.

Fri, 29 Apr 2011 07:52:00 EST
<![CDATA[Grow Perfect Peas in Any Space with Containers]]>
carouby de maussane snow pea flower

When it comes to "home grown is best," there is no common vegetable -- including tomatoes! -- that proves this as conclusively as peas. Three reasons:

  • 1. Peas start turning starchy the instant they leave the plant. Even picked-in-the-morning fresh will be less sweet by dinnertime than those picked right before cooking...or, delight of delights, eating raw.
  • 2. Commercial pea varieties are usually less flavorful than the ones sold for home gardening.
  • 3. Beautiful, tasty pea shoots and flowers are seldom marketed, and when they are, they cost a fortune.

If you have a garden, planting peas is a no-brainer. If you're growing food in containers, planting peas will show your dedication to quality over quantity.

Planting Peas in Containers

Let's get the unpleasant part out of the way first: peas aren't good container plants, because they want cool weather and moist soil. Containers are by nature hot and dry, and they're usually sitting on or above heat-retentive paved surfaces, so you're more or less working uphill all the way. Nevertheless, it can be done, and the results are worth it.

1. Select a large container -- at least 14 inches wide and deep. Something much larger, like a half whiskey barrel, is much better. A light color is better than a dark one; consider painting the barrel. Fill it with a mixture of 3/4ths soilless mix like Promix and 1/4th compost.

Wed, 14 Apr 2010 02:21:00 EST
<![CDATA[New Organic(!) Tulip Bulbs for Fall Planting]]>
white poeticus narcissus flower

It had to happen sooner or later, and sure enough here they are, catchily called Ecotulips.

As usual with newly introduced organic versions of things, there still isn't much selection and prices are a bit higher than for the conventional kind, but if you'd like to buy certified organic tulip bulbs, lovingly grown in Holland by an experienced bulb farmer, at least you've got the option.

So if the title is Organic Tulips, why is the first picture of a narcissus (poeticus narcissus, probably 'Pheasant's Eye')? Partly because I've already gone into how to grow tulips, and partly because there's more to environmental responsibility than simply buying organic and calling it a day.

For one thing, there's the mileage question; it's much easier to find (sort-of) locally grown daffodils than locally grown tulips.

For another, daffodils are much easier to save and reuse. Tulips can come back more frequently than they're given credit for, but they don't come back the way daffodils do and they certainly don't multiply the way daffodils do.

Also: deer. They eat tulips; they don't eat daffodils.

Choosing daffodils

white obdam daffodil flowers in vase

This particular bunch is 'Obdam,' which I got some years ago from Brent and Becky's.

It's even harder than choosing tulips, but checking the description for "naturalize" eliminates a lot of otherwise tempting contenders. Naturalize is narcissusspeak for "likely to come back and multiply" and its omission is a warning that the beauty in question may not be an eager grower. The other thing to keep in mind is use in the landscape.

Wed, 07 Oct 2009 10:51:00 EST
<![CDATA[Beautiful Flowers (Finally) Arrive in Gardens]]>

As you've no doubt noticed if you follow these things, the current fashion in bouquets has oneness at its heart. Either it's one kind of flower -- roses, say or gerbera daisies -- or it's one color: white or pink or (in the higher rent districts) green.

Not usually purple, it must be admitted, but otherwise this is typical, or typical of one colorness, anyway.

gladiola and sweet pea flower bouquet

Gladioli and sweet peas are not typically buddies but this has been a weird summer.

This year, the kind of bouquets my old friend Sharon calls "It must be August," only became possible in early September. Most of the good annual cutting flowers take time to start producing in earnest, and that goes double for the ones you get by letting things like Verbena bonariensis and nigella self-sow.

fresh flowers bouquet  ]]>
Tue, 22 Sep 2009 03:38:00 EST
<![CDATA[How to Fight Late Blight on Tomatoes Organically]]>
tomatoes in greenhouse

It's a major challenge, all right, but after losing all the tomatoes in New York, we're trying to see if at least one of the Maine tomato patches can fight off late blight (Phytopthera infestans), one of the most devastating vegetable diseases. It's the one that led to the Irish potato famine and it's just as deadly almost two centuries later.

P. infestans is always around, but it came early this year, and more ferociously than ever before. Farmers and home gardeners from Maine to South Carolina -- and quite a way west -- have already lost their crops to what has turned out to be the most widespread outbreak in U.S. history.

If you see any signs of late blight, experts advise destroying all infected plants at once, to stop the spread of spores. And if you live in an area where there are gardens or farms that have not yet been hit that is the advice to take; late blight is highly contagious. But if everyone else already has it and yours is the garden that's hanging in, you might as well join us in employing:

The Organic Gardener's Arsenal:

  • Fungicide
  • Fertilizer
  • Being There
  • Being Careful
  • Being Realistic

And -- at least in our case -- Being a Procrastinator. If I'd done all the tomato grafting I'd planned to do, there wouldn't have been any leftovers in the greenhouse. Luckily, the tomato plants in the greenhouse (pictured) have so far escaped the blight.

* The Fungicide we're using is Serenade, available at well stocked garden centers or online at suppliers like Peaceful Valley Farm Supply. It's approved for organic gardening and is a fairly effective prophylactic as long as it's applied frequently. Late blight can't be cured, and if it's well established it can't be stopped. But if it hasn't yet taken hold it can be held at bay by Bacillus subtilis, the "good" bacteria that is Serenade's active ingredient.

Sun, 23 Aug 2009 07:10:00 EST
<![CDATA[How to Plant Vegetable Seeds with Success]]>

Figfip? That would be Food Gardeners' Fine Points (FGFP), a new occasional series inspired by my friends Matt and Shannon, who wrote:

planting garden

"We have some very exciting news. After nearly three years on the waiting list, Shannon and I now have a plot in the community garden next to our apartment building!!!.... Naturally, I have a mile-long list of vegetables I'd like to grow...."

He meant it; it is a mile long, ending with: "Are there any realistic choices for two newbies from that list? We're prepared for failures and setbacks. But we're also giddy with enthusiasm."

Who could resist an appeal like that?

M&S may be newbies but they're certainly not dummies. They already have the usual gardening manuals and an unusually large ability to conduct web searches. They even have a resident sage at the community garden.

But a lot of "how to" leaves out choice tidbits. Some information does get dated. And I don't always agree with the sage, even though he's right with them in Washington, D.C. and I am in New England.

So from now on, when I'm doing something in the garden and it makes me think, "I ought to tell Matt and Shannon about this," I will. And as I have just been planting vegetable seeds, that's where we're going to start.

Success With Growing Vegetables From Seed

*Read the fine print when choosing seeds from retail racks. Most of those pretty envelopes appear to vary only in decoration and price, but in fact there are big differences in quantity and quality. One way to tell at a glance is to see how much information is offered about:

Quantity - Is there a measurement or do you have to feel up the packet?

Viability - Is there a germination percentage , with a testing date? This is more likely with European seeds and those from good mail order sources, but it doesn't hurt to look. Percentages may be anywhere from 65 to 95%, which is obviously relevant, and having a number implies that the retail company tested the seeds before packaging them, always a good sign.

Freshness- There should be a "packed for" year on there. It's usually just a stamp; and it's often stamped right where you're going to tear off the top of the envelope when you try to open the flap and it won't. If the date is on the flap, write it somewhere else on the packet as soon as you get it home (otherwise, if you're anything like me, you'll forget all about it until you're out there in the garden far from the indelible pen you should be carrying at all times but probably aren't).

Planting Instructions - The more detailed they are, the greater the likelihood that the company is eager to have you come back.

Fri, 26 Jun 2009 03:25:00 EST
<![CDATA[6 Bulbs for Beautiful Summer Flowers.]]> Preparing for spectacular dahlias, cannas, lilies and other colorful flower beauties.]]> Thu, 12 Mar 2009 03:46:00 EST <![CDATA[Orange Eggplants and Currant Tomatoes Oh My: Are Exotic Vegetable Varieties Worth Growing?]]>

Are you seduced by curvy Golden Crescent beans? By Purple Dragon carrots, cushion shaped orange eggplants or yard long Red Noodle beans?

 red noodle beans in garden

Welcome to the club. I've never been able to resist oddball vegetables; show me a shape or color that's different and bam, it goes on the order list.

This has been going on for 30 years and will no doubt continue for many more, but meanwhile some of these bizarro thrills have become staples in my garden -- and just as many have been consigned to the "interesting experiment" list.


*Ronde de Nice zucchini, not the best for slicing but ace for stuffing.

Instead of the conventional canoe, you get a tidy little bowl that stays firmer in the oven and looks prettier on the plate. My favorite filling is caponata, topped with a thick layer of coarse breadcrumbs tossed with a little olive oil. Most delicious at room temperature.

* Yard long beans (Vigna unguiculata). You get a lot of bean with each bean, so they're quick to harvest and prepare. The taste is unique, sort of nutty and meaty instead of sweet and light like snap beans (Phaseolus vulgaris). They're not as crisp and juicy as snap beans, either, and are not helped by being lightly steamed. It takes thorough cooking to bring out their best.

Most published recipes are Chinese or Indian and involve several ingredients, but I usually just stir-fry them over medium high heat in olive oil or bacon fat until many brown spots appear.

Note: the red ones are great in flower arrangements and for the general wow effect, but they don't taste quite as good as the green ones, take longer to grow, and lose most of the color when cooked.

* Currant tomatoes, especially white currant. A labor of love. They're beyond easy to grow; plants are right next door to weeds and grow to huge size with no help from us. The labor part is harvesting. They're tiny ; each cluster ripens sequentially so they must be picked one by one and the calyxes tend to hang on, so if you're not careful the ripe fruit comes away with a hole in the top. Why bother? The love part. Beyond delicious. They are to full sized tomatoes as wild strawberries are to the cultivated kind.

* Yellow (Golden) beets. Everything that's tasty about beets, with no bleeding, and just as easy to grow if you don't count chronically lousy germination. More on beets anon; in the spirit of advocacy inspired by hearing that our new president hates them. No doubt he grew up on boiled and/or canned, and I'm sure that's got nothing to do with Hawaii though as I write the specter of pineapple raises its head ...

Mon, 09 Feb 2009 10:48:00 EST
<![CDATA[Gobble, Gobble Toil and Trouble]]> Wed, 19 Nov 2008 03:53:00 EST <![CDATA[How to Get Your Garden Ready for Winter]]> Clean up time, aka late fall, is a joyful time in the garden. The weather is pleasant, warm enough to be inviting, cool enough for work. There are no bugs.

And there is major satisfaction in restoring order to what is usually pretty untidy by now. But before you get carried away, a few suggestions:

* Before you remove all the evidence, make a rough map/post mortem report that can be used for planning next year. Include relevant outside factors like deer predation -- which you'd THINK you'd remember but if you're like me you tend to have denial problems about the smaller, less painful losses. It's also helpful to note things like the amount of rain: lousy tomato taste, for example, may be blamed on too much water and the too little sun that implies. But that same rain is probably why the hollyhocks hit 10 feet.


These are actually the smaller hollyhocks, only about 7 feet; all my pictures of the 12 footers came out rotten. Use your imagination.

* When removing sick plants, don't forget to rake up underneath, especially around roses and peonies; diseased leaves are a prime place for bugs and diseases to winter over. Put all possibly infected (or infested!) material deep in the woods or on the bonfire.

Mon, 27 Oct 2008 08:57:00 EST
<![CDATA[Peony Planting Time!]]> But before we get all excited and start spending zillions on gorgeous new ones, it's peony cleaning up time. The fungus diseases that plague peonies overwinter on dead peony leaves and flowers, so getting rid of all traces of same is the best defense against future infection. There is no applied control, organic or otherwise, as effective as simply being tidy to the nth degree.

Cut stems down to an inch or so above ground, preferably while the leaves are still firmly attached. It's always a wrench to remove a whole bush full of beautiful fall foliage, but snipping off all of this year's growth before it falls apart makes the subsequent raking of leftovers far less of a chore.

bouquet of peonies on a table inside

Making bouquets helps; peony leaves and fall flowers are pretty much foolproof.

Needless to say, none of the detritus should go on the compost. Sending it to the landfill is ungreen. Burning it is against the law in many places. Fortunately, the diseases are mostly specific to peonies and there is almost always some dumping spot -- in the woods for instance -- where peonies will not be planted in the foreseeable future.

It doesn't hurt to get rid of the mulch, too. Very small bits of former peony are undoubtedly embedded in it. And as a side benefit, mulch removal exposes the plant bases so you can get a good look at them. Everything is probably fine, but if you see humped up crowns you know it would be wise to divide and reset the plants.

Tue, 14 Oct 2008 02:46:00 EST
<![CDATA[5 Tips For Fall Tulip Bulb Planting]]>

Tulip or Not to Tulip? That is the question. Happens every year, as dazzlers never seen at the florist beckon from page after glossy catalog page.

In addition to being beautiful (and frequently fragrant), tulips are inexpensive; the more you buy the cheaper they are. They’re easy to grow – in fact almost impossible to screw up – and in spite of the general wisdom, they often come back

Red tulips
red tulips
These Giant Darwin hybrids have been around for so many years I no longer remember what they are. Probably ‘Parade,’ famous for returning almost as dependably as daffodils....

Mon, 06 Oct 2008 11:22:00 EST
<![CDATA[Growing Roses? Avoid a Common Disappointment]]>

Want failproof roses? Ha! No such thing.

But if you want to be sure you don't buy something like this:

 pink grandiflora rose flower

Grandiflora I forgot the name of

And wind up with something like this:

 magenta dr. huey rose flower

Dr. Huey, an uninvited visitor

Be sure the roses you buy are "own root," which means just what it sounds like it means. If these roses freeze to the ground, any new shoots they send up will be just like the parent plant.

Own root was once the rule, but it hasn't been for a long time, so unless the tag says otherwise, you can assume that the rose you're buying is a grafted plant made of two roses: the big flowered beauty you see on top, and a fast growing, hardy, adaptable something else providing the roots underneath. Frequently, the else underneath is a climber named Dr. Huey, introduced in 1920 and still going strong.

He's vigorous; he withstands frost; nematodes bother him not. He's just down there waiting for the prima donna on his head to freeze or falter -- or for the gardener to fail to notice that those healthy-looking new shoots do not look quite right.

Tue, 15 Jul 2008 05:49:00 EST
<![CDATA[A Failproof Method for Growing Roses]]>

Ha! No such thing.

But if you want to be sure you don’t buy something like this:

Pale pink rose

Grandiflora I forgot the name of

And wind up with something like this:

Magenta rose

Dr. Huey, an uninvited visitor

Be sure the roses you buy are ...

Fri, 11 Jul 2008 11:56:00 EST
<![CDATA[How to Grow Great Organic Tomatoes]]>

There have always been two good reasons to grow your own tomatoes: they taste much better than the mass-market kind and they're much cheaper than equally tasty local tomatoes from the farmstand or greenmarket. Now we can add reason three: they're safe.

Unless you have spent the last month in complete isolation, you know the dark underbelly of industrial agriculture has once again rolled to the surface. Every hamburger is a scary roll of the health dice, this time because of tainted tomatoes.

Why are we not surprised?

Fortunately, raising your own tomatoes is a lot easier than raising your own beef cattle. In fact, tomatoes are among the very easiest vegetables to grow.

 sliced heirloom tomatoes

Picnic-ready heirloom tomatoes; the green ones are ripe Aunt Ruby's German Green.

Tomatoes are not only easy, they're productive -- 6 or 8 plants (in the front yard, if need be) can supply all the fresh tomatoes a family of 4 could want, with enough extra to preserve for winter. And if your garden is the container kind, a single Sungold or Sweet Million in a half whiskey barrel will give you what does seem like a million delicious cherry tomatoes.

Although planting time is fast passing, it's not too late to get growing your own in most parts of the country. Garden centers still have seedlings and tomatoes are such tough plants that even skinny pot bound disasters will usually do fine, eventually.

Tue, 24 Jun 2008 05:52:00 EST