What Midwinter, Spring-like Weather Will Do

My Garden’s A Mess!

After some really frigid weather a month ago followed by more or less seasonal cold, temperatures did a loop de loop and we’ve had a couple of days in the high ‘60s. Very unseasonal, to say the least, and perhaps another indication of global warming, but welcome nonetheless. Those temperatures, coupled with brightening sunshine, made me want to get my hands in some dirt.

A large, second-story bedroom window overlooks my main vegetable garden. The weather made me see it in a different perspective — it looked messy. 

I pride myself on putting everything in order each fall so that (quoting from Charles Dudley Warner’s 1886 My summer in the Garden) “The closing scenes are not necessarily funereal . . . A garden should be got ready for winter . . . neat and trim. . . in complete order so that its last days shall not present a …

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Catalog and Weather Watchin’

Armchair Gardening

Pretty much the only “gardening” I’m doing now is thumbing through the seed catalogs arriving in dribs and drabs in my mailbox. I’ve ordered and received what I thought I’ll need, but you never know; maybe there something else interesting out there to grow.

Among the most fun of these catalogs, and strictly for the plant-crazed, is “The 2020 Ethnobotanical Catalog of Seeds,” which used to be called Hudson’s Seed Catalog. The catalog originates in the Santa Cruz mountains of California (once home to Ken Kesey) but offers seed from all corners of the world. Only recently have they come online, at www.jlhudsonseeds.net.

I’ve ordered from this catalog for decades, each winter pleasurably and slowly wading through the almost 100 black-and-white pages of small print listings of botanical names and descriptions. For this first run through the catalog, I sit poised with red pen, ready to make a star next to …

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SEED TIME

Late this Year

This year I’m late, but not too late, with my seed orders. Usually, I get them in by a couple of weeks ago.

The only seeds that I’ll soon be planting are those of lettuce, arugula, mustard, and dwarf pak choy. They’ll fill any bare spaces soon to be opening up where winter greens have been harvested. No rush, though, because I have seeds left over from last and previous years of these vegetables, and they keep well if stored under good conditions.

I’ve usually sowed onion seeds early also, in flats in the greenhouse in order to give plants enough time to become large transplants. Large transplants translates to large plants out in the garden before long days force them to shift from growing leaves to, instead, swelling their bulbs. More leaves before that shift makes for larger bulbs.

Last year, because of poor onion germination in the flats, I …

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PRETTY BARK AND TASTY NUTS

Bark Giveaway

Walking in the woods or an arboretum this time of year is a good time to play a game of tree identification. You say, “But trees are leafless!” No problem. Often, all you need is to look at the bark.

You might think a white-barked birch would be an easy identification. Not necessarily. A white-barked birch might be, instead, a European birch (Betula pendula). This one is distinguished from our native paper birch (B. papyrifera) by the dark, diamond shaped fissures on its bark. Or Himalayan birch (B. jacquemontii) or Asian white birch (B. platyphylla). Of course, these last three species aren’t likely to turn up in our woodlands.

I’m often snagged by cherry birch (B. lenta), whose bark isn’t white at all, but whose young bark resembles young cherry bark, then morphs with age into longitudinally elongated plates. The giveaway for cherry birch comes with breaking a small twig and …

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FOR THE GARDENER WHO HAS EVERYTHING

How Cold? How Humid?

Do you want to send a really good gift to a really good gardener? (Perhaps that gardener is you.) Problem is that most really good gardeners have pretty much everything they need except for expendables like string, seeds, or potting soil (unless they make their own. Don’t despair; I’ve come up with a few items many really good gardeners with (just about) everything they need might find useful.

At the top of my list is a nifty, little device with the odd name of Sensorpush. It’s not much bigger than an inch square pillbox, less than 3/4 inch thick, that you place wherever you want to monitor temperature and humidity — from your smartphone, via bluetooth.

Sensorpush, graph of the week’s outdoor conditions

Sensorpush, screen shot of current readings

Couple it with the WiFi Gateway and temperature and humidity can be monitored from anywhere on your …

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THE GIFT OF EXPERIENCE, OTHERS

READ ALL ABOUT IT

I’ve heard wizened gardeners boast at how many years they’ve been gardening, impressing newbies with their unspoken knowledge. I’ve never been much impressed by anyone’s years gardening as an indicator of horticultural prowess.

I speak from experience: I’ve swung a scythe for many decades, which may lead others to believe me to be a long time expert scyther. Not so. A few years ago, after 25 years of scything, I learned I was using it incorrectly. (Unfortunately, earlier on I had the hubris or ignorance to describe it and its use for a magazine article which included a sepia-toned photograph of me swinging it — wrong, I subsequently learned).

On the other hand, as a newbie gardener I had access to one of the best agricultural libraries in the country (I was in graduate school in agriculture at the time), and voraciously devoured its holdings. After only a couple …

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The End

Snow Day

On December 2nd, my gardening season officially ended. It was brought to a screeching halt as a foot of heavy, white powder descended to democratically blanket my meadow, my vegetable beds, my terraces, and my deck.

I have to admit that it was welcome as I had spent the previous few weeks furiously getting ready for the end. Compost now covers most of the vegetable beds. Wood chips and neighbors’ raked leaves lie thickly beneath berry bushes and recently planted Korean pine (for nuts), chestnut, and pear trees.

Left in place, the one tunnel protecting a bed in the vegetable garden would have been collapsed by a heavy snow; I dismantled it. This tunnel consisted of metal hoops, 4 feet apart, each 5 feet long with either end pushed into the ground at each edge of the bed. The row of hoops was covered with vented, clear plastic and then, for …

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SEEKING TRUTHS

(The following is adapted from my most recent book, The Ever Curious Gardener: Using a Little Natural Science for a Much Better Garden, available from the usual outlets or, signed, from here.)

OBSERVE AND ASK

Charles Darwin did some of his best work lying on his belly in a grassy meadow. Not daydreaming, but closely observing the lives and work of earthworms, eventually leading to the publication of his final book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms. He calculated that these (to some humans) lowly creatures brought 18 tons of nutrient-rich castings to the surface per acre per year, in so doing tilling and aerating the soil while rendering the nutrients more accessible for plant use.

We gardeners can also take a more scientific perspective in our gardens without the need for digital readouts, flashing LEDs, spiraling coils of copper tubing, or other bells and whistles of modern …

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FRUITS OF ISRAEL

Olives Galore

Now I feel foolish buying olives. I recently returned from visiting Israel where there were olive trees everywhere. Irrigated plots of greenery thrived in the broad expanses of the otherwise grays and browns of the desert. Trees popped up here and there in backyards and front yards of homes in streets lined with apartment buildings as well as along cobblestone streets in rural areas. Trees were even prominent in city parks, either as self-sown wildings in less tended areas or as formal plantings.

And oodles of ripe or ripening olives were clinging to branches or littering the ground. Need some hand lotion? Just pluck a ripe olive, squeeze it gently, and spread out the fresh oil that drips onto your hand. 

Want some olives for eating? Not so fast. Fresh-picked ripe or green olives are extremely bitter (due to oleuropein). That bitterness is removed with brine, multiple changes of water or …

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MORE AUTUMNAL NEATENING

An Upbeat Closing

I don’t know about you all, but I have a great urge to tidy up my garden this time of year. Partly it’s because doing so leaves one less thing to do in spring and partly because, as Charles Dudley Warner wrote in My Summer in the Garden in 1889, “the closing scenes need not be funereal.” All this tidying up is usually quite enjoyable.

Moist soil – and not too, too many weeds – make weeding fun. Creeping Charlie (also know as gill-over-the-ground) has sneaked into some flower beds. Its creeping stems are not yet well-rooted so one tug with a gloved hand and a bunch of escaping stems slithers back from its travels forward from beneath and among flower plants and shrubs. What remains are occasional tufts of grassy plants, especially crabgrass, easily wrenched out of the ground or coaxed out with my Hori-Hori garden knife.

This tidying …

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