Spring has come early, as usual, in my greenhouse. Growth is shifting into high gear as brighter sunlight fuels more photosynthesis and warms the greenhouse more and for a longer time each day. Giant mustard plants, which provided greens all winter, are no longer tasty now that they have shifted their energy to stalks topped with yellow flowers. No matter. I’m digging the plants out and sowing lettuce seeds.
Paths in the greenhouse are carpeted in green — mostly from weeds, mostly chickweed, which is also soaking up the sun’s goodness. No matter. I’m also digging these plants out before they go to seed and threaten takeover of the greenhouse.
To take over the greenhouse, the chickweed would have to do battle with claytonia, which already has self-sown to bogart much of the greenhouse floor. Fortunately, the claytonia is good fresh in salads.
Early February, February 6th to be exact, was the official opening of my 2017 gardening season. No fireworks, waving flags, or other fanfare marked this opening. Just the whoosh of my trowel scooping potting soil into a seed flat, and then the hushed rattle of seeds in their paper packets. And the grand opening was not for a flamboyant, who-can-reap-the-earliest-meal of a vegetable like peas or tomatoes.
No, the grand opening for the season is rather sedate: I sowed onion seeds in mini-furrows in a seed flat. Why onions? In addition to the fact that I love the flavor of onions raw and cooked, onions need a long growing season. The summer growing season is cut short because the plants stop growing new leaves to put their energy into swelling up their bulbs when daylengths grow sufficiently long, 14 hours long, to be exact. Around here, that …
Warmer weather, even if it’s not all that warm, makes me feel like spring is just around the corner. The ground — in my vegetable beds, at least — isn’t even frozen, no doubt because water doesn’t linger long in the well-drained soil and because the dark-colored compost blanket I laid down in autumn sucks up the sun’s warmth.
So yesterday seemed like a perfect time to continue the garden cleanup that screeched to a halt when frigid weather struck, and some snow fell, a couple of months ago. Old cabbage heads that never quite ripened were laying on the ground like ratty, pale green tennis balls (with stalks attached). The four-foot-high stalk of one Brussels sprouts plant, stripped in autumn of its sprouts, stood sentry like a decrepit soldier in the same bed.
Of course, kale also still stood, except for those that flopped to the …
Snow squall or not, I just had to get outside. Not enough snow for a cross-country ski, but, after too much time indoors, I had to do something outside.
I was driven to break a fundamental rule of the garden. I pruned, and that’s a no-no. Pruning is best delayed until at least after the coldest part of winter is over, ideally closer to the time when warmth and sun are stirring buds to swell in preparation for their final burst. I did rationalize that any pruning now would leave me that much less to do amidst the hubbub of spring gardening activities.
I wasn’t indiscriminate in trespassing this Rule of Gardening. The plants that I pruned were gooseberries, which are very cold-hardy plants so are unlikely to suffer any cold damage as a result of untimely pruning. Also, no need to wait, as is done with peaches, for growth …
As if to ring in the new year, scale insects are starting to make their presence known. These insects crawl around as babies, find nourishing spots on leaves or stems, insert their feeding tubes, and then spend their days sucking plant juice. Carbohydrates and sugars are what result when sunlight and chlorophyll get together, so longer days may already be making plant sap sweeter and more plentiful, much to the liking of these suckers.
Armored scale on staghorn fern
I encounter two kinds of scales on my houseplants. Each armored scale looks like a small, raised, brown tab. Cottony cushion scale looks like a small tuft of white cotton. As either kind feeds, it exudes a sweet honeydew that drips on leaves, furniture, and floor, and eventually becomes colonized with a fungus that airbrushes those sticky drippings an unappealing smokey haze.
(Scale insects are often problems on trees and shrubs …
Orchids are one group of plants I’ve regularly sidestepped. It seemed to me that if you grew orchids, you became crazed over orchids, to the exclusion of other plants. You then fill your home with as many of the over 20,000 species as you can cram onto your windowsills. I feared being led down that path.
My sidestepping took a turn into orchid-land 25 years ago when a local orchid enthusiast gave me a plant of Odontoglossum pulchellum, which I today learned has also been called lily-of-the-valley orchid. But more importantly today, the plant is in bloom. Blossoms from this plant are no rare occurrence; it’s bloomed every year for about the past 20 years, some years around now and other years waiting until February to unfold.
Odontoglossum pulchellum doesn’t sport knock-your-socks-off, traffic-stopping blossoms; instead, they have a soft, subtle beauty. Right now, delicate, arching flower stems rise up from …
A friend gave me a ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) decades ago, and up to this summer it looked something like a palm tree sitting atop a large onion. Or a long-leafed dracena plant whose stem, near ground level, had swollen almost to the size of a bowling ball. The plant looked very interesting, but not particularly attractive, and the sharp edges of its long, strappy leaves were grabbing at me every time I walked by too closely.
So last summer, I was going to toss the plant in the compost pile; instead, I lopped off its top to about 3 feet in height. What remained was nothing more than what looked like a tan bowling ball halfway immersed in a pot of soil with a inch-thick, bare stem tapering skyward from its upper side.
After pruning, I ignored the plant just as I had done for the past few …
Finally, I’m harvesting endive from the garden, just as planned when I settled seeds into mini-furrows in a seed flat back in July. After leaves unfolded on the seedlings, I gently lifted them up and out of their seed flat, helping them up with a spatula slid beneath their roots, and into individual cells in a GrowEase Seed Starter.
Also as planned, a bed in the vegetable garden was freed up from harvested sweet corn in early September. After removing corn stalks and slathering an inch of compost on top of the bed, the endive plants were snuggled in, 2 rows down the 3-foot-wide bed, with one foot between the plants in each row. In October, I laid row cover over the plants, plus a tunnel of clear plastic film supported by hoops, to protect plants from bitterest cold.
Thanksgiving is a most appropriate time to put together a truly American meal, one made up of native plants, many of which are easily grown, that might have shown up on the original Thanksgiving table about 400 years ago.
(The date of that first feast was 1623 but the date for celebrating Thanksgiving in all states— on the final Thursday in November — was not fixed until 1863, with a presidential proclamation. Lincoln hoped that a unified date throughout the country would help unify the nation during the divisive days of the Civil War. Not so. Confederate States refused to accept that date until the next decade, during Reconstruction. Another presidential proclamation, by F.D.R. changed the date to the 4th Thursday of November, in an attempt to boost the economy. Would a new date help now?)
On to garden history . . . Back in early November, I picked a …
’Tis the season to really put the “organic” in organic gardening. “Organic,” as in organic materials, natural compounds composed mostly of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. “Organic,” as in materials that are or were once living, things like compost, leaves, manure, and hay.
I’ve spread compost over almost all my vegetable garden beds. A one inch depth laid atop each bed provides all the nutrients the vegetable plants need for a whole season, in addition to other benefits such as snuffing out weeds, holding moisture, improving aeration, and nurturing beneficial, pest-fighting organisms.
I’m also finishing up the bulk of making new compost for the year. Pretty much everything organic — old vegetable plants, kitchen trimmings, even old cotton clothing — go into the compost piles. The primary foods, though, are hay, which I scythe, rake up, and then haul over from my hayfield, and horse manure, …