EVOLUTION AT WORK

Green Thumb Not Needed

Anybody out there now sprinkling seeds into mini-furrows in seed flats, flowerpots, or repurposed yogurt cups? How many of us are then disappointed when, a few days later, there’s no sign of green sprouts poking up through the brown soil? Or not enough of them.

A green thumb isn’t a prerequisite for growing seedlings indoors to give plants a head start for earlier ripening of tomatoes and peppers or earlier blooms of zinnias or marigolds. Backing up every seed is 350 million years of trial and error; seeds have evolved to sprout. So why, sometimes, don’t they, and how do to right any wrongs?

Good Seeds and Good (Potting) Soil a Must

Seeds are living, breathing creatures, and don’t live forever. How long a seed remains viable depends on the kind of seed. Longevity of vegetable seeds under good storage conditions goes from just a year for onion, parsnip, and …

Read the complete post…

SHRUBS, I’M SHARPENING MY SHEARS AND LOPPERS

Shrubs are Shrubby

A shrub is a shrubby, woody plant. (Now, that’s profound.) Numerous stems originating at or near ground level are what make a plant shrubby. Usually, no one stem ever gets the upper hand over other stems. For most shrubs, you need to get out there with your pruners to snip and lop every year.

How to prune a shrub depends on when it flowers and on what age stems provide the most ornamental effect. Does the shrub flower early in the spring, or later in the summer? Does it flower on old stems, on those that grew last year, or on new shoots?

Tree peony

And one more thing before we dive in: Here, I’m writing about pruning shrubs growing informally. Let’s shelve pruning hedges and, because they vary so much in their pruning needs, roses for another time.

Deciduous shrubs can be put into one of four categories according …

Read the complete post…

BREWING UP BATCH OF POTTING SOIL

Prime Ingredients for Any Potting Mix

Many years, my gardening season begins on my garage floor. That’s where I mix the potting soil that will nourish seedlings for the upcoming season’s garden and replace worn out soil around the roots of houseplants. Why do I make potting soil? Why does one bake bread?

There is no magic to making potting soil. When I first began gardening, I combed through book after book for direction, and ended up with a mind-boggling number of recipes. The air cleared when I realized what was needed in a potting soil, and what ingredients could fulfill these needs. A good potting soil needs to be able to hold plants up, to drain well but also be able to hold water, and to be able to feed plants. The key ingredients in my potting mix are: garden soil for fertility and bulk; perlite for drainage; and a mix …

Read the complete post…

TO PRUNE OR NOT TO PRUNE, THAT IS THE QUESTION

A Sharp Knife is not Enough

“Prune when the knife is sharp” goes the old saying. Wrong! (But don’t ever prune if the knife—or shears—is not sharp.) There are best times for pruning, and they depend more on the type of plant and the mode of training than on the sharpness of the knife.

Cat is ready to prune

As each growing season draws to a close in temperate climates, trees, shrubs, and vines lay away a certain amount of food in their above- and below-ground parts. This food keeps the plants alive through winter, when they can’t use sunlight to make food because of lack of leaves (on deciduous plants) or cold temperatures. This stored food also fuels the growth of the following season’s new shoots and leaves, which, as they mature, start manufacturing their own food and pumping the excess back into the plant for use in the coming …

Read the complete post…

Getting to the Root of Gardening

Etymological Wanderings

Sure, I’ve been dropping seeds into mini-furrows in some seed flats, and prunings are starting to litter the ground outdoors. But there’s a lot of nongardening activity going on here. What better time to ponder etymology? (Etymology, not entomology, the latter of which is the study of insects; aphids, mealybugs and whiteflies, all of which will be crawling around soon enough.) What exactly do we mean when we talk about a “garden” or “gardening?”

Garden(?) in Italy

The word “gardening” is pretty much synonymous with “horticulture,” which comes from the Latin hortus meaning a garden, and cultura, to culture. According to Webster, horticulture is the “art or science of cultivating fruits, flowers, and vegetables.” The word “horticulture” was given official recognition in The New World of English Words in 1678 by E. Phillips, although though the Latin form, horticultura, first appeared as the title of a treatise of 1631. 

Horticulture, …

Read the complete post…

FIGS: WAIT, DON’T GROW!

Stay Asleep Please

If you garden in a cold winter climate, as do I, I hope you’re growing figs. Despite being tropical plants, figs are relatively easy for us to grow, as attested to by other gardeners, from Moscow to Montreal, Minneapolis and beyond.

San Piero fig, ripe

If you garden in a cold winter climate, I also hope that your fig plant is NOT growing now (unless you’re in the Southern Hemisphere). The way we cold-climate fig growers help our plants face winter cold is by protecting them from it. A usual method is to grow a plant in a pot that gets moved to a sheltered location to wait out winter. (Growing in pots plus four other methods of overwintering figs are described in my recent book Growing Figs in Cold Climates.)

Sometimes — too often — a fig jumps the gun on spring and starts growing in …

Read the complete post…

OMINOUS HOUSEPLANTS

Poinsettia Absolved

Sunny temperature reaching the 50s a few days ago enticed me outdoors for pruning. Today, with temperatures in the 20s, I’m back indoors (except for a very pleasant cross-country ski tour earlier) looking over what plants I have, or might have, growing indoors. Their ominous or not so ominous sides.

Mention poisonous houseplants and most people immediately think of poinsettias. Actually, poinsettia’s bad reputation is unfounded. The plant’s not really poisonous. Only a masochist would be able to ingest enough of this foul tasting plant to cause the occasional cases of vomitting that have been reported. This is not to pooh-pooh the toxicity of all houseplants. Many are poisonous.

No sane adult walks around the house plucking houseplant leaves to eat; the greatest danger from poisoning is to children. Ten percent of the inquiries to poison control centers across the nation concern plant poisonings, and the bulk of those inquiries concern …

Read the complete post…

AN ICEY BEGINNING, WITH KIWIS

Pruning Weather

Yesterday was a fine day for pruning, windless with a sunny sky and a temperature of 19 degrees Fahrenheit. The ice storm had turned this part of the world into a crystal palace, with branches clothed in thick, clear sleeves of ice. From an auspicious vantage point, a pear tree glowed like a subdued holiday tree as hints of sunlight’s reds and blues refracted from the natural prisms on the branches.

Witchhazel flowers

What a pleasant setting for pruning! The usual recommendation is to hold off pruning until after the coldest part of winter, which typically occurs in late January and early February, is over. I’ll admit to rushing outdoors, pruning shears in hand, before that time period, with some plants not long after they dropped their leaves in autumn. That was with plants, such as gooseberries and currants, least likely to be damaged by cold weather. 

I was anxious …

Read the complete post…

A HOUSEPLANT, AN “ALMOND,” AND PAPER

Easiest Houseplant of All?!

What with the frigid temperatures and snow-blanketed ground outside, at least here in New York’s mid-Hudson Valley, I turn my attention indoors to a houseplant. To anyone claiming a non-green thumb, this is a houseplant even you can grow. 

Most common problems in growing houseplants (garden plants also) come from improper watering. Too many houseplants suffer short lives, either withering in soil allowed to go bone dry between waterings, or gasping for air in constantly waterlogged soil. Also bad off yet are those plants forced to alternately suffer from both extremes.

The plant I have in mind is umbrella plant (Cyperus alternifolius); it requires no skill at all in watering. Because it’s native to shallow waters, you never need to decide whether or not to water. Water is always needed! The way to grow this plant is by standing its pot in a deep saucer which is always kept …

Read the complete post…

SOWING PEARS AND LETTUCES

For the Long Haul

Among the must-have tools for any good gardener are hope, optimism, and patience. I thought of all three last week as I was planting some seeds.

The first of these seeds especially emphasizes patience. They were a few pear seeds I saved from pears I had eaten. After being soaked for a couple of days in water, the cores were soft enough for the seeds to be squeezed out, after which they were rinsed, and then planted in potting soil.

I put the planted seeds near a bright window in my basement where the cool (about 40°) temperatures would, in a couple of months, fool the seeds into feeling that winter was over. They would sprout.

Given time, those seeds would grow to become pear trees and, given more time (ten years, possibly more) go on to bear fruit. Those seeds came from Bosc and Passe Crassane pears. The genetics …

Read the complete post…