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 …
I don’t know if was a case of green thumbness or the weather, but my bed of endive is now almost as frightening as a zucchini planting in summer. The bed, 3 feet wide by 20 feet long, is solid green with endive plants, each and every plant looking as if it’s been pumped up on steroids.
I sowed seeds in 4 by 6 inch seed trays around August 1st, “pricked out” the seedlings into individual growing cells filled with homemade potting soil about a week later, and transplanted them into the garden in the beginning of September. The bed had been home to one of this summer’s planting of sweet corn (Golden Bantam), a heavy feeder, so after clearing the corn I slathered the bed with an inch depth of pure compost.
Perhaps the vigor of these plants also reflects the extra space I gave them. In years past I …
I’m no devotee of the perfect lawn, but I did recently suggest, for the bare palette of ground on which W wanted to plan for a variety of fruits, a patch of lawn. W protested that she hated mowing and wanted a “permaculture planting” that would take little care.
Visitors to my garden have occasionally complimented me on my lawn. The only care I give it is mowing with a mulching mower that lets clippings rain back down. By not cutting the lawn I avoid “mining” the soil for nutrients by repeated harvest of clippings. The clippings also enrich the ground with humus.
Pawpaw tree in my cousin’s lawn
Still, I’d rather grow trees, shrubs, vines, especially fruiting ones, and vegetables and flowers, than lawngrass. But I have plenty of ground devoted to these plants. And the easiest way to care for a plot of ground, short of sealing it …
Sure there’s seed-sowing, weeding, and pruning to do, but I’ve also been spending a good amount of time communing with my pitchfork. Turning compost.
Some people are put off by the thought of having to turn compost. Don’t be. Compost does not have to be turned. Any pile of organic materials will eventually become compost.
Still, I like to turn my composts. I typically build new piles (a lot of them!!) through summer into fall, turn them the following spring, and then spread the finished compost that fall or the following spring. As I fork the ingredients from the old pile into the adjacent bin, I break up any clumps with the pitchfork and fluff up any parts that seem sodden and gasping for air. A nearby hose makes it convenient to spray any dry areas.
Everything organic (was once or is living) — hay, weeds, old plants, some …
Nothing like winter to force me to take a closer look at my trees and shrubs. “To see what, you may ask?” To look at their buds, within which lie the makings of this season’s flowers and shoots. Not only are the buds quite distinctive, but they also offer a crystal ball into the future, which is very important to me as a fruit grower.
Trees’ and shrubs’ fruit and shoot buds look different from each other. It’s the fatter ones that open to become flowers and then, barring damage from late frosts, insects, diseases, or hail, fruits.
Last year, perhaps because of dry weather or a late spring freeze, my pawpaw crop was a failure. This explains why I now see so many distinctive plush, velvety, fat, brown buds — flower buds — lining the stems. For any fruiting plant, a light crop of fruit one year generally makes …