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, …
“Some men there are who never shave (if they are so absurd as ever to shave), except when they go abroad, and who do not take care to wear polished boots in the bosoms of their families. I like a man who shaves (next to one who doesn’t shave) to satisfy his own conscience, and not for display, and who dresses as neatly at home as he does anywhere. Such a man will be likely to put his garden in complete order before the snow comes, so that its last days shall not present a scene of melancholy ruin and decay.” So wrote Charles Dudley Warner in his wonderful little book (much more than a gardening book) My Summer in a Garden (1898). I gave up shaving a few months ago, but I am putting my garden in order for autumn.
Oranges? In New York, planted outdoors in the ground? Yes, I have them ripening on the branches now. No matter if they ripen thoroughly or not because, although they are true oranges, delicious flavor is not one of their assets. It’s still a plant well worth growing.
The plant is the aptly named “hardy orange,” actually a true citrus species, Citrus trifoliata. (Previously, hardy orange was a citrus relative; botanists recently moved it to the Citrus genus from the closely related Poncirus genus.)
Mostly I planted hardy orange for its stems, whose show is at the same time intimidating, interesting, and decorative. Stems of the variety that I grow, Flying Dragon, twist and contort every which way, and then add to the show with large, recurving thorns. Stems and thorns are forest green, even as they age, and remain so all through winter to make the plant especially …
Before going any further, let me bust a myth that still might be having some traction: Late summer and fall allergies are not caused by goldenrod (Solidago spp.). Goldenrod gets the blame for its showy, yellow blossoms during this allergy season. But the true culprit is ragweed, which goes unnoticed because it bears only small, green flowers.
It makes sense that the pollen of a showy flower would not cause allergies. Showy flowers put on their show to attract insect (and, in some cases, bird or bat) pollinators. Wind can’t carry their heavy, sometimes sticky, pollen.
Pollen that causes allergies wafts around in the wind. Wind-pollinated flowers (euphoniously called “anemophilous” flowers) don’t need to attract animal pollinators.
And Now, Enjoy the Flowers
With that said, I can safely revel in the rich golden yellow with which goldenrod’s flowers are painting sunny hillsides and fields this year. Goldenrod’s beauty comes as no surprise once you …
Paddling down a creek — Black Creek in Ulster County, New York — yesterday evening, I was again awed at Mother Nature’s skillful hand with plants. The narrow channel through high grasses bordered along water’s edge was pretty enough. The visual transition from spiky grasses to the placid water surface was softened by pickerelweeds’ (Pontederia cordata) wider foliage up through which rose stalks of blue flowers. Where the channel broadened, flat, green pads of yellow water lotus (Nelumbo lutea) floated on the surface. Night’s approach closed the blossoms, held above the pads on half-foot high stalks, but the flowers’ buttery yellow petals still managed to peek out.
Soon I came upon the real show, as far as I was concerned: fire engine red blossoms of cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis). Coming upon this flower in the wild is startling. Such a red flower in such shade?
My pear trees look as if a giant spider went on a drunken frolic among the branches. Rather than fine silk spun in an orderly web, strings run vertically from branch to branch and branch to ground. Yet there is method in this madness. Mine.
As I spell out in my new book, The Ever Curious Gardener: Using a Little Natural Science for a Much Better Garden, plants produce a natural hormone, called auxin, at the tips of their stems or at high points along a downward curving stems. This hormone suppresses growth of side branches along the stem, allowing growth from a bud at the stem tip or high point be the “top dog,” that is, the most vigorous shoot.
Within any plant a push and pull goes on between fruiting an stem growth. Both require energy, which the plant has to apportion …
My vegetable garden is in beds. Your vegetable garden is in beds. Seems like just about everybody plants in beds these days. And with good reason. Beds make more efficient use of garden space. Soil compaction is avoided because planting, weeding, pruning, and harvesting can be done with feet in the paths. And the shapes of the beds can help make even a vegetable garden look prettier, especially with decorative plants edging the beds.
Raised beds are also one way to grow happy plants in otherwise poorly drained ground, or in ground that has been contaminated by lead or arsenic. Such contamination is likely to occur from past use of leaded gasoline near roadways, from old paint near buildings, and from residual pesticides in sites that were once orchards.
My vegetable garden is laid out in 3-foot-wide beds with 18-inch-wide paths between them that feed into one 5-foot-wide path down the …
I’d like to say it was the birthday of my baby ficus except I don’t know when it was actually born. And since it was propagated by a cutting, not by me, and not from a seed, I’m not sure what “born” would actually mean. No matter, I’m having its biannual celebration marking its age and its growth.
Just for reference, baby ficus is a weeping fig tree (Ficus benjamina), a tree that with age and tropical growing conditions rapidly soars to similar majestic proportions as our sugar maples. That is, if unrestrained in its development.
Baby ficus (FIGH-kus) began life here as one of three small plants rooted together in a 3 inch pot and purchased from a discount store. (Weeping figs are common houseplants because of their beauty and ability to tolerate dry air and low light indoors.) Eight years later, it’s about 4 inches …
The dark green wreath was tied with red ribbons and gliding towards me, in its progress stirring up snowflakes gently floating out of the grey sky. No, the wreath was not hanging from a horse-drawn sled, but was plowing through the frigid air affixed to the chrome grille of a gleaming white Cadillac! Here we are in the twenty-first century, still infusing a breath of life into our winters with cut evergreen boughs, just as did the ancient Egyptians, Persians, Jews, Christians, and Druids.
Whether for Christmas, for the ancient winter festival of Saturnalia, or for any other tradition, a wreath celebrates the continuity of life through winter. Evergreens are favorite wreath materials because their year long green flaunts winters’ apparently lifeless cold.
A few evergreen boughs tied together make a doorway more inviting or a room more cozy in winter, but a bona fide wreath creates something special. And the actual …
Autumn is a season when New York’s Hudson Valley, and much of the Northeast, unfolds in all its glory. Not this autumn, though. What’s going on in the leaves this year? Is there anything I can do about it?.
Chlorophyll is what makes leaves green, but hidden behind that green, all season long, are some of autumn’s colors. Chlorophyll must be continually synthesized for a leaf to stay green. The shorter days and lowering sun of waning summer are what trigger leaves to stop producing chlorophyll and let some of the other colors come to the fore.
Yellows and oranges, no longer masked by chlorophyll green, come from carotenoids, which help chlorophyll do its job of harvesting sunlight to convert into plant energy. Thank carotenoids for the warm, yellow glow they give to gingko, aspen, hickory, and birch leaves.
Tannins are another pigment, actually metabolic wastes, that all summer are …