Archive for May, 2011

When I was young Memorial Day was known as Decoration Day, because that was the day when you remembered those in your family who had died by decorating their graves with flowers. In my family this didn’t mean only soldiers, but everyone.

Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on May 5, 1868 and was first observed on May 30, 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. It is now celebrated in almost every State on the last Monday in May. This year, that means that it falls on our traditional last frost advisory date of May 30, so planting those tender vegetables and annuals should be plenty safe enough. Still, it always pays to keep an eye on the forecast until the first week of June has passed. If even a hint of frost is expected, cover plants with damp newspaper, tarps, or what have you and weigh down the corners so they don’t blow off. Anything planted before now like peas, lettuce, carrots, spinach, radishes, chard, and onions won’t need covering, but the recent plantings will. It’s also best to wait until June 7th to put tropical house plants outside.

When buying plants remember to choose short, stocky plants with deep green leaves. Plants with spindly stems, wilted leaves, leaf spots, or brown edges on leaves or flowers shouldn’t be considered. Whiteflies are active now, so swipe the back of your hand over the leaf tops. If you see a cloud of tiny white flies rise up from the plants, it’s better to leave them right where they are. This is especially true with tomatoes because these pests are almost impossible to eradicate. Check the undersides of leaves, crowns, and where the leaves meet the stem for scale or mealy bugs as well. Scale looks like a cluster of yellowish dots and mealy bugs have a white, cottony appearance. Any plants with sticky leaves and shiny spots on them may have aphids and shouldn’t be considered.

Make sure to water what you plant thoroughly. Watering means more than just a 30 second sprinkle; plants need a good, deep soaking and before becoming established may need watering daily if they are in full sun. The planting site should be well prepared, with as much compost as you can spare dug in. A little starter fertilizer, slow release fertilizer, or compost tea will see them off to a good start.

Finally, don’t forget what Memorial Day is really all about; remembering our lost loved ones. Why not visit them and remember them with a few flowers?  Geraniums are always a good choice because they’re a tough plant that can stand up to a lack of regular watering.  Soak them well before planting and they should be fine unless we have a prolonged dry spell.

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As I slogged through my perennial beds pulling weeds the other day, the little boy who lives across the street came out and began dancing around and yelling COME ON SUNSHINE! My sentiments exactly; we’ve had something like 9 straight days where it has rained at least once in 24 hours, and we’ve seen little sunshine.

But it’s not all bad; weeds pull a lot easier when the soil is moist. Weeding can’t stop just because it rains because, as the old saying goes, one year of seeds equals seven years of weeds.

The lightning we’ve had converts gaseous atmospheric nitrogen into a soluble form that plants can use, and it is estimated that 30 million tons of fixed nitrogen fall from the sky each year world wide. That’s a lot of free fertilizer. The plants love it, but if my lawn gets much more water and nitrogen I might have to start mowing twice a week.

It was also a good time to transplant so I moved a few foxgloves that insist on coming up in the front, rather than the back of the beds. Foxglove is a biennial, so it has only leaves the first year and then flowers the second. The mother plants then die, but their seeds live on. I had one foxglove many years ago and the seedlings have been here ever since.  I also have so many columbine and hosta seedlings that I don’t know what to do with them all. I’m never quick to rush out and dead head plants as soon as they finish blossoming because letting them go to seed often means pleasant surprises in the following years.

Speaking of seedlings, as I limbed up a maple that was shading out part of the garden I noticed that the pink lady’s slipper that grows on the edge of the woods has now become five lady’s slippers. Conditions have to be perfect for lady’s slipper seed to germinate because the seeds don’t have an internal food supply like most plants. Though scientists don’t fully understand it, they know that lady’s slippers rely on Rhizoctonia fungus threads in the soil to attach themselves to their seeds and break them open.  After the plant has grown it returns the favor and lets the fungus soak up nutrients from it. These plants are rare and endangered and I’m happy they like it here.

I was also able to get more fertilizing done. You don’t realize how many plants you have until you feed each one. It takes me a few hours to do them all, so I’ve got to stop getting new ones. (As if that will ever happen) In spite of all the rain it was a productive weekend, but I’m still ready for some sunshine.  Maybe the boy across the street dancing his sun dance will help.

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A few years ago I had to visit a big box store and noticed racks of plants wilting in the sun, with no hose in sight. I pointed this out to the first store employee I saw walking by and the response was “I don’t have time right now. I’ll get to it when I can.” The tag the person wore said “manager.” If watering takes such a low priority, just imagine what insect and disease protection must be like.

For the customer, repeated wilting means there is a very good chance that plants have been subjected to stresses that severely weaken them. The effects of this kind of stress, depending on the plant, may not become apparent until a few weeks later, or even until the following season.

When I was young I worked at a nursery where we grew ten thousand mums each year. The number one priority was watering. It didn’t matter what else needed to be done; you didn’t let plants wilt-ever.  Standing out in the hot sun watering ten thousand mums was unpleasant, but the plants came first and your needs second, and we all understood that.

A while ago I visited Windsock gardens in Swanzey and asked about a particular variety of impatiens. Sarah, the owner, wrote down my request and said she wouldn’t have them until next year because she grew them from seed. Rather than being disappointed, I was happy to hear it. Now this, I thought, is a real nursery.  Someone who raises thousands of plants from seed cares about their plants, and you won’t ever see them wilting.

“Caveat emptor” is Latin for “let the buyer beware,” and that’s what buyers should do when buying plants from box or grocery stores. Unless you get them right off the truck it’s a roll of the dice, and buying dozens of shrubs for a hedge, for example, could be a significant gamble.

Would you try to buy lumber or groceries at a plant nursery? If not, then why would you buy plants at a lumber yard or a grocery store? Do yourself a favor and shop at a reputable nursery, where their only concern is the plants they care for. You might pay a few cents more, but you’ll have the peace of mind that comes from knowing that your plants are healthy, hardy in your area, and well cared for.

One final word: Please don’t blame store employees for their lack of knowledge. It’s up to the owner to make sure employees know how to care for plants before putting them in charge of the garden center.

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The sensational headline traveled around the world faster than green grass through a goose: 

Overdose of Growth Hormone Causes Exploding Watermelons in China! 

According to the BBC, the Associated Press and others, the obvious explanation for these bursting watermelons was an overdose of the growth accelerator Forchlorfenuron. An EPA bulletin says this chemical was released in 2004 for use on grapes and Kiwi fruit in this country. It is apparently so effective that its recommended rate of application is 2-8 grams per acre for Kiwis. 

Farmer Liu Mingsuo didn’t get the EPA bulletin however, and soaked his melons with the stuff. Before long they were going off “like land mines,” and 8 acres were ruined. About 20 farmers and 115 acres of melons were affected overall, but most hadn’t even used the chemical. 

Though melons in Shanghai markets show signs of the overuse of Forchlorfenuron, (“fibrous, misshapen fruits with mostly white, instead of black seeds”) it is doubtful that chemicals caused the melons to explode.  Growth hormones have been used on apples, citrus, tomatoes, and other fruits and vegetables since the 1930s with no known explosions. 

Horticultural professor Wang Liangju explained that the farmers were using a thin skinned variety of melons that are actually nicknamed “exploding melons,” because of their tendency to split open. In addition, he said the melons began “exploding” after a heavy rainfall. 

This is more common than one might think. After dry weather a heavy downpour can cause many fleshy fruits and vegetables to split open due to a rapid intake of moisture. Anyone who has picked a split tomato, radish or pepper has witnessed this. Nurserymen use this rapid moisture intake to their advantage by letting plants dry out slightly before giving them a weak solution of water soluble fertilizer. 

Uneven watering isn’t the only reason watermelons might explode; a librarian from Texas writes that when she cut into a watermelon 2 days after buying it, “It exploded! Seeds and pieces of that melon went in all directions, including on the white blouse I was wearing!” Many others have had this same experience after leaving watermelons in a warm place for awhile. 

According to the Alabama Extension System, Bacterial fruit blotch has caused watermelon explosions in one or more states on the eastern seaboard and in Alabama every year since 1989. This disease can cause melons to literally ferment inside their skins. “Effervescent exudates” (a fancy term for seeping, bubbling liquids) are often seen on the rind of affected fruit, and like an over-filled balloon they sometimes pop, especially when heated by the sun.

Finding a split watermelon or two doesn’t mean someone snuck into your garden and sprayed growth hormones, because it’s a very common occurrence. The Chinese horticulturalist’s explanation that a lot of rain and thin skinned fruit caused it on such a grand scale in China certainly seems the most plausible one.

Though inaccurate, maybe the headlines will get people thinking about what they are doing to their food and themselves when they use these chemicals. You have to wonder how much hope there is for China though; in March of last year authorities seized and destroyed 3.5 tons of 3 foot long beans (?) that had been treated with the banned pesticide isocarbophos.

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My gardening plans for this weekend include moving and dividing Hostas. Since I have over 200 of them there is often something Hosta related to do.  A few of them are beginning to crowd each other out, so these will be divided up and I’ll either plant the divisions or pot them up to give away.

The best time to divide Hosta is in the spring before the leaves fully unfurl, because then you don’t have to worry about tearing the leaves or breaking leaf stalks. Many plants have a natural division point “built in,” and Hostas are no exception. If I were dividing them later in the year, I’d part the foliage to find where the leaf stalks were far enough apart to easily cut between them. Whether the leaves have fully unfurled or not, once I find a good division point I plunge a spade straight down through the crown, then I dig around the outside of the plant on the side that is going to become the new division and pop it out of the ground. This doesn’t hurt the plant at all; I’ve done it hundreds of times without ever losing a single plant.

Hosta are heavy feeders, so when I replant the divisions I dig a hole at least twice the size of the root ball and mix large amounts of compost and / or manure into the soil. Since I grow these plants for their foliage rather than flowers, a little more nitrogen is beneficial.  If I were using chemical fertilizer I’d use one with a higher first number and mix it into the soil well before I filled in around the plant.

The three numbers on chemical fertilizers represent nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. (NPK) Higher nitrogen is typical in lawn fertilizers. Phosphorus is for root growth and flower production, which is typical in bulb, vegetable, and rose fertilizers.  Potassium is for vigorous growth and overall health. The average homeowner will do fine with an all purpose 10-10-10, or a 5-10-5 for vegetable and flower production.

I use mostly organic fertilizers because the minerals in chemical fertilizers are in salt form and have greater solubility than organic fertilizers. The nutrients become available to plants quickly rather than slowly, like in organic fertilizers. Over use can dry out (burn) and sometimes kill plants. When this happens they literally overdose on chemicals. Always keep chemicals away from roots and crowns. 

Hostas don’t need more than an annual side dressing of composted manure. They like lots of water and will take all you can give them, but established plants do fine with average rainfall. They also do well in the shade where they get cool morning sun, which makes them a valuable addition to shady gardens like mine. Other than daylilies, I can’t think of a more low maintenance plant than Hostas; maybe that’s why they’re the most popular perennial in the country.

Since it’s supposed to rain most of this week, today will be the perfect time to move and divide a few of them.

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In the blogging world you’re not just a garden writer but a photographer as well, so I was out early Saturday morning snapping pictures of plants. After that I decided to visit the local gardening scene. My first stop was the farmer’s market out behind the Colonial Theater in Keene. I planned on speaking to some of the farmers, but they were very busy and I didn’t want to gum up the works. There was an amazing variety of things for sale there, including annuals, perennials, vegetables, fruit trees and bushes, local meats, cheeses and dairy products, and even furniture and jewelry. One vendor had some nice looking white bunching onions that had my mouth watering, along with some great looking bok choy, spinach, and salad greens.

After visiting the market I went to Agway on Martell Court in Keene, which was also doing a good business. They’re getting new plants in all the time and have a great selection of just about any plant, shrub or tree you could want. I noticed that many more perennials had come in since the last time I was there.  

I also noticed that Debbie has the greenhouse up at Blue Seal Feeds on Dunbar Street in Keene. Though I didn’t stop I’m sure it was full of annuals, vegetables, perennials and hanging baskets as usual. They also have quite a large selection, especially of annuals. That’s usually where I get my impatiens, because they have varieties that you don’t often find anywhere else.

Windsock Gardens, across near the airport on Route 32 in Swanzey was also doing a brisk business. They specialize in annuals and vegetables and have a wide variety of both.  They had some fine looking pepper and tomato plants and just about every annual you could name. I like going there because they try something new each year. This year I saw a coleus I’ve never seen called “Chaotic Rose” that I’m pretty sure I have to have. It’s a remarkable plant with rose colored leaves that have splotches of burgundy, green, and cream. Plants with names like “Grape Expectations,” “Red Petticoats,” and “Candy Store” are worth searching for if you want to light up a shady corner, and Windsock is the place to start.

All spring I’ve been watching a new nursery take shape. It’s called Paradise Perennials and is on Route 10 in Swanzey, across from Gomarlo’s market, at Mrs. Bs garden shop. I stopped in to see what they had and found some of the healthiest looking perennials I’ve seen recently, at very good prices. Becky, the owner, was very helpful, and didn’t mind answering questions.  She said this is their first year, and that she hoped traffic would pick up. With such healthy plants at such low prices, I’m sure word will spread very fast. I saw a beautiful dwarf red native columbine that I’m fairly sure I have to have, so I’ll be paying them another visit. They only had one left, so I hope it’s still there.

Everywhere I went plants were going fast, so don’t wait until the last minute to buy those annual and vegetable plants!

Note: New content has been uploaded to our website at http://nhgardensolutions.com/ , so if you need some gardening advice, don’t forget to take a look. You’ll find everything from vegetable planting guides to articles on specific plants.

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This mother’s day, instead of getting mom a hanging plant that she has to water every day or a bouquet of flowers that might last a week, why not get her something that will remind her of you each year?

Flowering shrubs are excellent gifts that aren’t as expensive as one might think. They also don’t need as much care as people believe they do. They need some attention the first year but mostly in watering, and that is only if it doesn’t rain.  If a good, large hole is dug and plenty of organic matter is mixed into the soil at planting time, any shrub will do well with an inch of water per week; one or two deep soakings. I have a few dwarf evergreen azaleas that were bought on past mother’s days that I have done virtually nothing to in 17 years. Each year they bloom profusely and are extremely low maintenance.  Lilacs would be another good choice, as would Forsythia. Andromeda, Japanese quince, flowering almond, Mock orange, Spirea, Mayflower viburnum, Serviceberry, and Elderberry;  all  bloom right around mother’s day. You might pay $25.00 to $30.00 for a hanging fuchsia or ivy geranium, but just spend a few dollars more and you’ll have something that lasts for many years and will add value to the property.

Flowering trees are another good choice for mother’s day. Weeping cherries are beautiful right now all around town, as are the magnolias. Coming along a little later will be the flowering crab apples, dogwoods, tree lilacs, Mountain ash, and Ginko. All might need a little pruning each year, but isn’t mom worth it?

If mom has a small space that won’t handle trees or shrubs, how about perennials?  These will also remind her of you each year. Creeping phlox is just coming into bloom, and candytuft has been in bloom for a few days now. Painted trillium blooms near mother’s day and would be another excellent choice for moist shade. The blue flowers and silver speckled leaves of lungwort are always a welcome sight in spring as well.  Columbine comes in a wide range of colors and is another excellent choice. When it comes to perennials the list is almost endless. The best way to see what plants are blooming on Mother’s day or at any other time of year is to visit local nurseries.

Happy Mother’s day!

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I’ve lived in the big city and I’ve lived in the country. Neither is better than the other, because there is a price to be paid no matter where you live. In the city it’s crowds and noise, and in the country it’s……well, I’ll let a friend of mine who used to live in New Hampshire tell the story of the price we sometimes pay.

My neighbors were viewing their spring gardens with pride and anticipation until a big woodchuck moved in. 

First he (she or it) nipped off the tops of a patch of new peas, contemptuously leaving bare stalks.  The owners stuffed a gas canister into the burrow, set it off, and set the hill on fire.  But the woodchuck had moved to the next yard, and then the next.  Those gardeners took verbal action. The first claimed the only way to control woodchucks is to shoot them, but it is illegal to discharge firearms in the village, so she didn’t.  The second stood on her back porch, stamped her feet, and uttered vile curses.  The woodchuck, who was eating the Shasta daisies, sneered.

The last couple discovered him in their flower beds, set a Havahart trap, and caught a half-grown female.  Unfortunately, they had a heart and could not – ahem – dispose of her, and it didn’t seem friendly to relocate her in yet another neighbor’s yard, so they let her go.  Papa (or Mama) appears to have retired.

I have told this story many times.  My city friends look blank.  My country friends laugh in recognition, but at least one can easily top it.  He sealed a burrow, set off a canister, and stood over the tunnel to monitor the results.  Under the ground, he heard serious coughing.  Satisfied, he went to bed.  In the morning, the woodchuck had dug its way out of the tunnel and disappeared.  That, my friend says, is the humane way to dispose of woodchucks.

Note to Readers: If you have a gardening anecdote or if you’d like to pass on a gardening tip or two, I’d love to have you send it to me. I’ve discovered that this blogging business is a lot of work and I could use a break! Just click on the “contact me” tab above and you can send an email or leave a reply. Many thanks to E.H.B. of Indianapolis for this one.

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