Category Archives: Gardening

Future Hopes

 Totipotentiality (Is This a Word?)

I was so excited one day a few years back to receive a box full of leafless sticks by mail. The exciting thing about those sticks was that each one of them could grow into a whole new plant from whose branches would eventually hang luscious apples and grapes.

  And how did I know the fruits will be luscious? Because a year prior I was at an experimental orchard getting fruit photos for a book I was working on. Of course, I couldn’t help but also taste the fruits, and that’s why Chestnut Crab, Honeygold, Mollie’s Delicious, and King of the Pippins joined the two dozen or so other varieties of apples I already grew. Cayuga White, Bertille Seyve 2758, Steuben, Lakemont, Wapanuka, Himrod, Romulus, and Venus joined my grapes.

  It was “totipotence” – of the plants, not me – that allowed me to unlock potential …

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Late Winter Sap, Pruning, and Planting

The Sap is Flowing

In past years, now is when we would always hope to make enough maple syrup to last until the following year at about this time. Maple syrup consumption has dropped dramatically, leaving me with quite a backlog of the stuff. So trees haven’t been tapped for the past few years.

Not that we ever made that much maple syrup. Four tapped trees always produced sufficient sap for a year’s worth of syrup. It had to, because that’s how many spiles (taps) and buckets we own.

Our operation was nothing like what I came upon a couple of weeks ago cross-country skiing in the woods of northern Vermont. All of a sudden tubes had appeared in the pristine, white wilderness. Tubes everywhere! Baby blue plastic tubes, black plastic tubes, interlocking connectors, everything neatly wired into position at chest height and thoughtfully out of …

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Cold Rules

Water Freezes. Why Don’t Plants?

(The following is adapted from my book, The Ever Curious Gardener: Using a Little Natural Science for a Much Better Garden, available wherever fine books are sold, and my website.)

Not being able to don gloves and a scarf, or shiver, to keep warm, it’s a wonder that trees and shrubs don’t freeze to death from winter cold. They can’t stomp their limbs or do jumping jacks to get their sap moving and warm up. The sap has no warmth anyway.

Sometimes, of course, plants do succumb to winter cold. But usually that happens to garden and landscape plants pushed to their cold limits, not to native plants in their natural habitats or to well adapted exotic plants. 

Think about it: water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit—not a particularly cold temperature for a winter night—and plants contain an abundance of water. Water is unique among liquids …

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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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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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