Author Archives: Lee Reich

Gardening by the Book

An outdoor temperature of 8.2 degrees Fahrenheit this morning highlighted what a great time winter is for NOT gardening, but for reading about gardening. A lot of gardening books, new and old, end up on my bookshelves, and I’d like to note a few favorites new to my shelves last year.

(Disclaimer: I had a new book published last year, The Ever Curious Gardener — available here. I like the book very much.)

For anyone serious about vegetable growing, Eliot Coleman, gardener extraordinaire, is the author to seek out. The Winter Harvest Handbook builds on his The New Organic Grower (recently re-issued to celebrate its 30th year since publication!) and Four Season Harvest, delving into innovative techniques for growing vegetables more efficiently and year ‘round, with minimum heat inputs even in northern climates.

The “aha” moment for me in reading Eliot’s method’s for year ‘round harvests was that sunlight, even this far north, …

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A Wizening Little Tree

Now, in its tenth year, my weeping fig is just waking up. (This plant is not one of my edible figs weeping from sadness, but a species of fig — Ficus benjamina — with naturally drooping branches.) As a tropical tree, its sleep was not natural, but induced, by me.

In its native habitat in the tropics, weeping fig grows to become a very large tree that rivals, in size, our maples. The effect is all the more dramatic due to thin aerial roots that drip from the branches, eventually fusing to create a massive, striated trunk. Because the tree tolerates low humidity, it’s often grown as a houseplant. Growth is rapid but with regular pruning the plant can be restrained below ceiling height.

At ten years old, my weeping fig is about four inches tall with a trunk about 5/8 inch in diameter and no aerial roots. Four inches was about …

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Shears Galore

For Those Smaller Cuts

What gardener doesn’t need to prune some thing at some time? In many cases, a thumbnail suffices, as when pinching out the growing tip of a marigold or basil plant to make it grow more bushy. Or pinching off the soft green tip of a young apple shoot to temporarily stall its growth and let the leader, destined (by you) to be the future trunk and main limb, to remain top dog. Your thumbnail, though, isn’t always sufficiently long to use as a pruning tool, or else stems have toughened up beyond your thumbnail’s capabilities.

When more than your thumbnail is needed, there are many pruning tools from which to choose. If you’re going to own but one pruning tool, that tool should probably be a pair of hand shears, which are useful for cutting stems up to about 1/2” across.

As with everything these days from cold cereals …

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Dry, Wet, Bad, Good?

Some Bad

Wow! What a gardening year this has been. Looking back on 2018, it’s been the oddest year ever in terms of weather, insects, and disease.

After starting off the season parched, seemingly ready to go into drought, the weather in July did an about face. The rains began. Average precipitation here in the Northeast is about 4 inches per month. July ended up with about 6 inches, August saw 5 inches, September 8 inches(!), October 5 inches, and November 8 inches(!!).

All that rainfall brought humidity, which might have been responsible for my celeriac plants hardly growing, then rotting.

Celeriac, early in the growing season, before the rains

(Perhaps not, because this was my third growing season of failure with celeriac.) I’m taking this as a celeriac challenge. Perhaps next year I’ll try them in a large tub where I can have more control over soil composition and moisture.

The humidity also had …

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Mystery Solved, and Frigid Dealings

Mystery Plant: No longer a Mystery

Last week I mentioned my brother’s mystery shrub, which he wanted to prune back heavily. I told him it was okay to do so even though I — and a number of experts I consulted — could not identify the plant.

(Drum roll . . .) The plant has finally been identified, by Mark Brand of the University of Connecticut, as Wilson rhododendron, Rhododendron x laetevirens. I had narrowed it down to R. carolinianum, which is one of the parents of this hybrid, the other being R. ferrigineum.

Wilson rhododendron flower bud

My brother’s not noticing flowers on this rhododendron is understandable. It’s a super cold hardy but sparse bloomer that’s grown mostly for its foliage; the pointy leaves don’t droop or curl, but remain perky, even in frigid weather.

Now I can sleep nights.

It was Cold Outside!

Talk about frigid weather: I was surprised at how cold it …

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Read the Book, Bro’

To Prune or Not To Prune, That is the . . .

So I visited my brother and his family for Thanksgiving. As usual, we walked around his yard to look at his plantings. As usual, he asked my advice, this time about pruning. (As usual, he didn’t want to consult a copy of my book, The Pruning Book, which I had given him a few years ago. “Why read it, when I can just ask you?!” he says.)

He was considering taking blades to a row of handsome, evergreen shrubs along the front of his house. Over the years, the lengthening branches had sprawled out to encroach upon the bordering lawn, in some places leaving exposed bare stems. He questioned whether new growth would sprout if he lopped all those sprawling stems back to near the roots.

But what was the plant? I had an excuse, admittedly rather lame, …

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Of Crocs and Glads

No-Dig Crocs

Plants grow and multiply, which sometimes causes trouble. Such trouble was highlighted this week as I was digging up my crocosmia bulbs.

Backpedaling perhaps 20 years, you would have found me ordering crocosmia bulbs from a mail-order catalog. I’d seen the plants blooming in a friend’s garden in New Jersey and marveled at the graceful flower stems that arched up and out from clumps of sword-shaped leaves. Lined up near the ends of each flower stalk were pairs of tubular, hot scarlet blossoms.

Crocosmia isn’t supposed to be cold-hardy outdoors where winter temperatures drop below minus 10 degrees F. (hardiness zone 5), so the first couple of autumns, as instructed, I dug up the bulbs for winter storage. Each spring following, the plants would get off to a slow start, finally blooming late in the season or not at all.

In disappointment or laziness, I stopped digging the bulbs up each fall. …

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Of Worms and Leaves, Here and Beyond

Unreiking is Good Exercise

For the past few days I’ve been engaged in the esoteric exercise of unreiking. Basically, this involves lifting heavy (or sometimes light) sacks, slitting them with a knife, and then moving my arms back and forth over the spilled contents. Okay, okay, the “sacks” are plastic bags, their contents are autumn leaves, and I’m holding a pitchfork in my hands as I spread out the spilled leaves.

Sammy is looking forward to this leafy mattress

(Unreiking is the reverse of another esoteric exercise, reiking, whereby  . . .  well, leaves are raked up into plastic bags.)

Some people have too many leaves or otherwise don’t want them around. I have too few leaves and have use for them. By unreiking, the leaves get spread beneath my berry bushes, grape vines, and pear trees. These leaves feed bacteria, fungi, and other soil microbes, which slowly rot down the leaves to …

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Greenhouse Happenings, Figs and Lettuce and . . .

Darkness Descending

Plant growth has come screeching (almost) to a halt. Lettuces just sit, hardly growing. No wonder, you are no doubt thinking. It’s getting colder and colder outside. I know that, but I’m writing about lettuces in my greenhouse. The issue isn’t lack of heat. It’s lack of light.

For more evidence that light is the issue, look to good vegetable gardens in southern Europe. In that mild climate, harvest from a well-planned vegetable garden continues year ‘round. But year ‘round harvest there takes planning — lack of light also makes for very slow growth over there in these darkest months. Unprotected plants survive because the winter weather never gets that cold over there. (And cool-season vegetables, such as spinach, radish, and turnips, that we plan for sprig or fall, are what do well in Mediterranean winters.)

My garden here in the Hudson Valley, at about the 42nd parallel, experiences winter day …

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