MYCO-WHAT?

It’s Greek To Me (and You)

This far north, there’s only a little to do garden-wise this time of year, so let’s sit back and ponder the wonders of plant life. Mycorrhiza, to be specific. Wait! Don’t stop reading! Sure, the word “mycorrhiza” appears intimidating. But mycorrhiza are important in your garden, in the forest, to your trees and shrubs, maybe even to your houseplants.

First, the pronunciation. Say: my-ko-RY-za. It sounds nicer than it looks. 

Now let’s take the word apart to see what it means. “Myco” comes from the Greek word meaning “fungus” and “rhiza” from the word meaning “root.” Mycorrhiza, then, is a “fungus-root,” an association between a plant root and a fungus so intimate that the pair has been given a name as if it was a single organism.

Mycorrhizal blueberry root

Win-Win

The association is symbiotic, beneficial to both parties. One end of the fungus infects a plant root, …

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MY VINES GET IN ORDER

Pruning vs. Training?

A long time ago, when I first started growing fruit trees and vines, I read a lot about the all-important pruning and training they require. But I couldn’t get clear on my head what exactly the difference was between “pruning” and “training.” I went on to learn that and a whole lot more about pruning (through books, as an ag researcher for Cornell University, and with practical experience), and eventually wrote my own book about pruning, hoping to present the techniques with more clarity and completeness than all the books I had read. Perhaps my book, The Pruning Book, does that.

Okay, to answer my question of yore. “Training” is developing the young plant to a permanent framework that is sturdy and will always have its limbs bathed in light and air, and whose fruits hang within easy reach.

Kiwifruit within easy reach

Training involves some pruning as …

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LOOK BEYOND POINSETTIA GLITZ

A Harem of Males

Phew, what a year 2020 was! Well, it’s over and, at least at this writing, things look hopeful for the future, at least from my perspective. Except if you live in a tropical or subtropical climate, there’s not much distraction from anything gardenwise, for now, so let’s take a close look at a plant no doubt sitting on many coffee tables and windowsills. Poinsettia. I’m not a big fan of their appearance, but I do like them as botanical curiosities.

Let’s share some botanical lore of this plant by setting your holiday poinsettia on a table in good light for a close look at its flowers. I say “close  ” because the flowers are not those large, red, leaf-like structures. The large, red, leaf-like structures are just that — leaves, albeit modified leaves called bracts. The bracts attract pollinating insects to the plant.

The actual flowers of the poinsettia, …

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ALMOST LIKE SUMMER

Fresh Veggies

When I was a child, it seemed that winter vegetables were mostly peas and diced carrots, conveniently poured frozen out of plastic bags into pots of boiling water. Yuk! Winter notwithstanding, my backyard garden still offers plenty of fresh winter vegetables. Let’s have a look. Kale, of course, looks unfazed by snow and plummeting temperatures. Not only does it look unfazed; it also tastes very delicious.

More surprising is the endive that I planted back in August, then covered beneath a “tunnel” of clear plastic and slightly insulating row cover held aloft by metal hoops in late October. Temperatures about a week ago went as low as -8° Fahrenheit! Thanks to the additional insulation from almost a foot of snow, now melted, the endive is still lush and tasty.

The rest of winter’s fresh garden vegetables are not in the garden. Most are in plywood boxes in cold storage, first in …

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SNOW’S COME AND SO HAS FRUIT

Free and Attractive Mulch

  Beautiful. Floating down from the sky. A white blanket of “poor man’s manure.” That’s what gardeners and farmers have called snow.

In fact, snow does take some nitrogen from the air and bring it down to ground level for plant use in spring. Not that much, though. Just a few shovelfuls of real manure could supply the same amount of nitrogen as a blanket of snow.

  Mostly, what I like about the 15 inch deep fluffy whiteness now on the ground is the way it insulates what’s beneath it. Fluctuating winter temperatures wreak havoc on plants, coaxing them awake and asleep and awake and asleep as air temperatures go up and down and up and down. Each time plants are awakened, they become more susceptible to subsequent cold, the whole problem exacerbated with borderline hardy plants.

Anticipating cold weather and snow, last fall I cut back a cardoon …

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CLOSING “SHOP”

Chips, Not Hay, In This Case

“Make hay while the sun shines.” Good advice, literally in agriculture and figuratively in life. And I’m following it these days, in agriculture. Not making hay of course, because that sunshine is only effective in summer and fall, partnered with heat.

The “hay that I’m making” is actually mulch that I’m spreading. A few weeks ago I put my “WOOD CHIPS WANTED” sign out along the road in front of my house. In a short time, an arborist was kind enough deposit a truckload of chips. I figured I could spread it on the ground beneath some of my trees and shrubs, especially the youngest ones. There, next summer, the mulch would keep weeds at bay, slow evaporation of water from the ground, and feed soil life, in so doing enriching the soil with nutrients and organic matter.

Usually, by this time of year, my piles of …

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FINAL HARVESTS

Compressed Gardening Experience

People are so ready to sit at the feet of any long-time gardener to glean words of wisdom. I roll my eyes. Someone who has gardened for ten, twenty, even more years might make the same mistakes every year for that number of years. I, for instance, swung a scythe wrong for 20 years; I may have it right now. Even a wizened gardener who has evaluated and corrected their mistakes has garnered experience only on their own plot of land; these experience may not apply to the differing soils, climates, and resources of other sites.

When I began gardening, my agricultural knowledge and experience was nil, zip, niets, rien, nada. But — and this is important — I had easy access to a whole university library devoted solely to agriculture. Hungry to learn, I read a lot. (I also was taking classes in agriculture.) In one year I …

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GARDEN ESSENTIALS, FOR PEGGY

Compost, of Course, and More

Very soon I plan to drive a truckload of compost to my sister Peggy’s house. Like many people, she’s caught the gardening bug, and this compost, along with a wheelbarrow I fished out of my town’s metal recycling, is a gift. It includes my help spreading it.

What else would be a good gift for any beginning gardener? (Okay, Peggy has been dipping her toes in the gardening waters for years, but only recently got more serious about growing vegetables.)

For starters, indispensable, would be a trowel or a hori-hori knife, the latter being something of a hybrid of a garden knife and a trowel, not as good as either parent but great for all-around use. No need to labor over the worth of a high-end, stainless steel, oak-handled trowel; either will work well and last long if stored out of the elements.

A pair of hand shears would …

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ONE OF THANKSGIVING’S UNSUNG HEROES

Years ago I wrote about one of the unsung heroes of Thanksgiving, the groundnut (Apios americanum). This plant, which helped nourish the Pilgrims through their first winters, never achieved the reknown of corn, pumpkins, cranberries, and other foods of the season.

When I first wrote about groundnuts, I had just planted them. I pointed out that there was renewed interest in the plant, though specifics as to how to grow it were wanting and selection of superior clones was just beginning. Now that I have grown groundnut for a few (thirty plus!) years, I am ready to share my experiences.

It Looks Like . . . And Acts Like . . .

As you might guess from the name, the plant makes edible tubers, usually the size of golfballs and strung together on a thinner, ropelike root. The swollen roots on one of my plants are more the size of tennis balls than …

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GHOST OF A NOVEMBER PAST

A Vine or a Bush?

Here’s a blast from the past, from my November 20, 2009 blog post, with current commentaries  on how things have changed — and not changed — over the past 11 years.

Dateline: New Paltz, NY, November 20, 2009, 5:30 am. New models of plants, like cars, are deemed necessary to keep consumers interested and spending money. My cars (actually trucks . . . you know, manure and all that) stay with me for as long as they keep rolling along, so it was with equal skepticism I looked upon a new “model” of mandevilla, called Crimson, that arrived at my doorstep early last summer.

I was first attracted and introduced to mandevilla about 20 years ago. The glossy leaves and the bright red, funnel shaped flowers, were part of the attraction. The vining habit was also a big part of the draw, making the plant a …

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