Archive for October, 2011

You could see a witches’ broom this Halloween, but you don’t have to look for a wart nosed hag wearing a pointy black hat to find one.

Witches’ broom is a plant deformation which appears as a very dense cluster of branches, often found on woody plants like trees and shrubs. Blueberry bushes for example, often have witches’ brooms. I know of one bush that I picked berries from for years that had a large broom growing in the center of it. The growth didn’t seem to inhibit berry growth or affect the plant in any way. In fact, it looked as healthy as the bushes that surrounded it.  

In some cases however, as in rice, the fungus that causes witches’ broom can be fatal. In other instances plants act positively bewitched; potatoes with witches’ broom can form tubers on top of, rather than below ground. This isn’t much help for the farmer when you consider that potatoes exposed to sunlight become toxic by forming solanine, which is a poisonous alkaloid.

Witches’ brooms are usually caused by either a rust fungus or a parasitic plant such as mistletoe, but there is an aphid known to cause honeysuckle witches’ broom, and on hackberry trees (Celtis occidentalis) it is caused by both a powdery mildew fungus and a tiny mite. On cherry and blackberry it is caused by bacteria carried by insects from elm or ash trees.

In the case of blueberry bushes, witches’ broom is caused by a fungus that lives on balsam fir trees. This broom fungus always needs a blueberry and a fir as hosts and is very specific; a blueberry with the fungus can’t infect another blueberry. Most brooms caused by rust fungus need two host plants. The fungus that causes witches’ broom on balsam fir needs common chickweed as a secondary host, and the fungus that infects spruce needs the lowly bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi).

Witches broom can cause very desirable dwarfism and increased branching in some plants. In fact, many well known dwarf evergreen shrubs are the result of witches’ broom.  For example, Montgomery Dwarf Blue Spruce is one of the best dwarf blue spruces, and is from a witches’ broom. Globosum, a round-headed, grafted form of Japanese black pine, is the result of a witches’ broom.  Another black pine, Hornibrookiana, will be no larger than 6 feet across and 2 feet tall even after 30 years, thanks to a witches’ broom.

So if you should see a witches’ broom on Halloween or at any other time, remember-it is not the home of hobgoblins and witches and is not a Hexenbesen (bewitched bundle of twigs) as medieval writers would have you believe.  No-more than likely it is, once again, just nature doing what it does so well.


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It seems like every time I go out lately I run across an interesting or unusual seed pod. The following pictures are of pods I thought readers would also find interesting.


The pods above are from a Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) tree. When the seed pods are green the pulp on the inside is edible and very sweet, while the pulp of the very similar black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) is toxic. One good way to tell the two trees apart is by the length of their seed pods; honey locust pods are much longer and may reach a foot in length, while black locust pods only grow to about 4-5 inches long. Beautiful white, fragrant flowers cover these trees in late spring. Locusts are legumes, in the pea family.


 The seed pods in the above photo are on a native trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans) vine that is growing wild on an old chain link fence near here. Trumpet creeper vines have beautiful trumpet shaped orange, peach, yellow, or sometimes red flowers that hang from the branch tips in early summer. It is a favorite of Ruby Throated Hummingbirds and bumblebees, and in winter Goldfinches like to eat the seeds. If you see a red flowered trumpet creeper with very large flowers it is probably the Chinese variety (Campsis grandiflora.)


The photo above shows the long green seed pods of the Catalpa tree. This tree has very large heart shaped leaves and beautiful orchid like flowers in the spring. Trees will grow to 60 feet tall and 40 feet wide, so they need a lot of space. Catalpas are also known as “cigar trees,” but when I was in grade school we always called them string bean trees. The seed pods can grow to 20 inches in length. Catalpa trees are in the same family (Bignoniaceae) as the trumpet creeper vine, above.


 The electric purple seed pod above has to take the prize for the best looking pod in the entire plant kingdom! I found this vine growing on an old board fence and spent a month or two trying to figure out what it was before finally identifying it as a purple hyacinth vine, which is in the pea family. This annual vine is easily grown from seed after all chances of frost have passed in the spring. It grows so fast that it can grow 20 feet before the first frost in the fall, and is covered with beautiful purple flowers all summer. Seeds can be found at any garden center. This one is on my “wish list” of plants I want to grow in 2012.

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Spiders on your plants aren’t a bad thing. In fact, spiders eat many of the insects that damage house plants, so they really should be left alone. Seeing a spider in the house might be just a bit too much to bear for some, but a house with spiders is more likely to be insect free. (Spiders are not insects.) Though there are dangerous spiders known in the U.S., here in the northeast most spiders living in our homes will be the common house spider, which is relatively harmless.

Spider mites, on the other hand, are critters you definitely don’t want on your plants. Spider mites build webs like spiders and are in the same arachnid family. Some mites cannibalize their own kind, but most prefer plant juices and will pierce a leaf or stem and then suck the plant juices and nutrients from it. This weakens the plant, and large infestations might even kill it.

Plants with spider mites will show small yellowish-brown spots on their leaves. These spots might be quite far apart at first, but as the colony grows leaves will have so many spots that they will appear off color and have a metallic bronze appearance. Small webs on the undersides of leaves and where the leaf meets the stem are where eggs will hatch. To check a plant for these tiny creatures, hold a piece of white paper under a leaf or branch and give the plant stem a couple of good taps. Spider mites will fall off if they are present and appear as small, rust red, moving dots on the paper. (You might need a magnifier.) Mites can travel from plant to plant on a slight breeze, so infected plants should be quarantined or thrown away if inexpensive.

Spider mites like it hot and dry, so keep humidity high by frequent misting and grouping plants together. Keep plants shaded from hot afternoon sun or consider keeping your plants in a sunny room in which the heat has been turned down. Most houseplants will do better at 65° F (18° C) than they will at 75° F (24° C) and you’ll save fuel.

Once spider mites appear on a plant control can be difficult unless spraying is done regularly. Eggs hatch in 4-5 days and mites will reach egg laying adulthood in a week or less. A strong isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol and water solution of 2 parts alcohol to 3 parts water should be sprayed twice weekly for at least 3 weeks.  It is very important to spray the undersides of leaves thoroughly along with the rest of the plant. Houseplants should be inspected regularly, even after spraying, so infestations don’t get out of hand.

Before spraying any plant with alcohol always test a leaf first to see if the plant will be harmed by it. Furry leaved plants should not be sprayed. Always protect surfaces and fabrics from alcohol sprays.

Photo magnification of Two Spotted Spider Mite by USDA-ARS-SEL & EMU, using Low Temperature -SEM

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I spent part of last weekend planting Siberian squill around and under the old honeysuckles in the front yard. Siberian squill is a small, early spring flowering bulb also known as Scilla. A neighbor once told me that several people had spoken to her about how seeing my flowers on their way to work each morning brightened their day. If that’s all it takes to make people happy, I’m all for more flowers and Scilla are a good choice because they multiply rapidly and in just a few years there should be large drifts of small blue, star shaped blossoms.

The recent rains knocked bushels of leaves off the maples. They were too wet to do anything with in the early morning but once they dried I shredded them with my mower and tossed them on the compost heap.  I’ll have to remember to keep any that blow around this winter off the scilla so the blooms aren’t smothered. 

I also spent some time cutting back more perennials and wondered how I ever came to have so many as I dumped tarp after tarp full on the compost pile. (And I haven’t even tackled the beds in the back yard yet.) As the weather cools and the soil begins to crust over during the day I’ll come back and do some mulching around the shallow rooted plants. I don’t have to worry about plants like hosta, daylilies, and Siberian Iris but foxglove, yarrow, campanula and sedums can heave right out of the soil on warm days.

On the way to the compost pile I noticed that the leaves on the new bottlebrush buckeye that I planted in the shrub border last spring have turned a beautiful lemon yellow. This shrub really seems to glow against the darker forest behind it and I’m glad that I bought it.

When I finished puttering around in the yard I took a ride down to the farmer’s market for some fresh vegetables. I’m always amazed at the huge selection available there-they even sell furniture and jewelry. One person had several different kinds of chutney preserves that were hard to pass by, but I kept my focus. It’s getting to be beef stew time so I bought some carrots and small turnips. The carrots are sweet and the turnips mild. I could have also bought potatoes and beef at the market but I already had those. An added bonus was the nice tops on the turnips. Those fresh turnip greens sautéed in bacon fat with a little onion and a hint of garlic and then sprinkled with crumbled bacon are great eating! I was hoping I’d stumble upon a nice freshly baked apple pie for desert but unfortunately, I didn’t find one of those.

Well, I think it’s high time I get my mind off food and tackle some more leaf raking.

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Because perennial beds are usually in a state of flux, with plants being dug and divided, new plants added, and older ones removed, I don’t mulch them. Instead I prefer the older method of bed grooming. Grooming perennial beds consists of regular (at least weekly) weeding and cultivating, with the disturbed top inch or two layer of cultivated soil acting as mulch. I’ll speak more about using cultivated soil as mulch in another post.

The only time I mulch perennial beds is for winter protection; typically in late fall and not, as some believe, to keep plants “warm” but rather to keep the soil frozen. Winter mulch should be applied when the soil starts to remain frozen during the daytime and plants have entered their dormant period. In southern New Hampshire this usually means mid to late November. The main reason for mulching as late as possible is because rodents like voles or mice will have already found their winter homes by the time the ground freezes and won’t be snuggling under warm mulch and feeding on a plant’s roots all winter.

During a relatively snowless winter or after most of the snow has melted in spring the soil surface can thaw quickly on warm days. The same thing can also happen during a week or more of a “January thaw.” This daytime thawing and nighttime re-freezing cycle can lift, or “heave” shallow rooted plants completely out of the ground. This leaves their crowns and roots exposed to the air and they dry out and die. Winter mulching prevents this by shading the soil surface and keeping it at a constant temperature.

Except in the case of evergreen boughs, the material chosen for winter mulch should be loosely placed around plants; not on top of them. Evergreen boughs are strong enough so snow doesn’t weigh them down, so they can be placed so they arch over plants. Straw, pine needles, bark, or other loose materials should be placed around the base of plants to a depth of about 2-3 inches. Shredded leaves may be used but they hold a lot of moisture, pack down easily, and are more apt to smother plants, so be sure to keep them off plant crowns. Hay shouldn’t ever be used because of the weed seeds it contains.

In the spring when the lawn feels spongy when walked on even in the late evening and perennial beds have started to dry out, all winter protection should be removed and added to the compost pile. Since it is removed in spring, winter mulching doesn’t have to be an overly neat operation. Remember-the point is to shade the soil, not to cover the plants.


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Back in June (it seems like it was just last week!) I wrote about taking a trip to Northfield, Massachusetts and coming home with several plants. One of those plants was Curly Wurly ( Juncus effuses) which is a contorted, screwy looking perennial in the rush family. Curly is actually a corkscrew rush, which accounts for the screwball growing habit and, as many plants in the rush family do, Curly likes waterlogged, boggy places to grow in. Since I don’t have a bog on my property I mixed up some compost and peat moss to a ratio of about 2/3 peat to 1/3 compost and put Curly in a pot. Peat moss absorbs huge amounts of water but still, Curly wasn’t satisfied so I had to water the pot daily. But, other than needing full sun and lots of water, Curly is a surprisingly easy plant to grow.

My favorite part of growing Curly Wurly has to be the comments that visitors have made. In the original June blog post, which can be found at https://nhgardensolutions.wordpress.com/2011/06/01/south-of-the-border/, I told about how a lady at the checkout counter with me asked “Is that plant plastic?” I thought that was pretty funny, but that was nothing compared to what was to come over the following months.  I heard “What on earth is that!?” and “Is that thing real?” and “Why does it grow all screwy like that?” and even “Boy! What an ugly plant!”

If you like unusual plants like I do and would like one that will literally cause people’s jaws to drop, get yourself a Curly Wurly next spring.  Put it out on your deck, by the pool, patio, or wherever people congregate and the conversations will go non stop. Curly really knows how to get folks talking!

If you’d like a stone head like this one to display your Curly Wurly in, just visit the people who make them at Petal Pushers Garden Place in Litchfield, Maine or read their blog here: http://petalpushersgardenplace.blogspot.com/2009/06/curly-wurly-plant.html

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Since I am both a gardener and allergy sufferer I was of two minds when I saw white patches on neighborhood roofs yesterday morning;  I don’t like to see our gardening season end, but I’m all for a good freeze wiping out the annual ragweed infestation. By the afternoon however, when I saw bumblebees buzzing among the still blooming impatiens, I knew the frost I had seen earlier was light and scattered at best. 

Gardeners and allergy sufferers who might have been thinking that the gardening and pollen seasons here in Southwestern New Hampshire seemed to be getting longer weren’t imagining it. Our average first frost date is September 15th and the chance of a hard freeze on October 7th stands at about 50%, but here it is October 8th and we haven’t even had a real frost yet. Temperatures this weekend are supposed to soar into the 80s and remain above average for most of the week. So what is going on?

Twenty researchers at the National Academy of Sciences, documenting pollen data and daily temperatures in Canada and the U.S. over the last 20 years, found an increase in the number of frost free days and a shift in the timing of fall frosts, which means that spring now begins earlier and fall later. In some areas the span between the last frost in spring and first frost in fall has lengthened by as many as 27 days.

A report whose lead authors include Lewis Ziska of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Christine Rogers of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst says “There was a highly significant correlation between latitude and increase in the length (days) of the ragweed pollen season over the period from 1995 to 2009.” Since ragweed is an annual plant that is killed by frost, this means that annual vegetables and flowers also have a longer growing season.

The aerobiology committee for the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology says:  “As we’re seeing warmer and warmer weather, fall gets warmer and longer and the effect is that there’s no frost to kill the ragweed and end the allergy season. Rising temperatures have produced a similar lengthening of the spring allergy season, which is now starting about a month earlier than it did decades ago.”

I can’t speak for allergy sufferers, but gardeners have known for a long time now that something was afoot-we didn’t really need scientists and politicians telling us that. But what is there to do about it? As I see it, all we can do is plant our gardens earlier and then take our allergy pills and harvest later, but a more long term solution might include voting for those who don’t deny the reality that surrounds them.

Photo of the Earth and Sun is by NASA

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A few posts ago I wrote about making mushroom spore prints. I didn’t say much about the dangers of eating wild mushrooms because I assumed that people knew enough to not eat wild mushrooms. Apparently I was wrong, because a statement released recently by the State Department of Health and Human Services says that the number of emergency room visits due to mushroom poisoning has tripled since 2009. And it’s not just happening here in New Hampshire; officials in Washington, D.C., Michigan, and even Norway are seeing the same thing.

The mushrooms in the photo at left, known as Death Caps (Amanita phalloides), are responsible for most of the mushroom poisoning deaths in the world because they resemble many edible species.  They aren’t rare or even hard to find; they grow in my yard every year.  Death caps contain a virulent toxin called amantin.

The following is by an expert in mushroom identification: “Someone who eats a Death Cap will not feel any symptoms for 10 to 14 hours. Then the person will experience vomiting, diarrhea, and cramps. After awhile, these symptoms will go away and the person will feel fine. They are not fine. Three or four days after eating the mushroom, the person will have kidney or liver failure. He/she will die five to ten days after eating the Death Cap.”  Some who ate them and survived said they were quite tasty, so the story that all poisonous mushrooms taste bad is a myth.

One ounce of this mushroom is enough to kill an adult and cooking it doesn’t make it less lethal. Neither does drying or freezing. There is no “antidote” for the toxin, but a handful of people have survived after eating it. If you accidentally eat one of these and don’t bring a sample with you to the E.R. they have no way of knowing exactly what you have eaten, and the outlook won’t be promising.

Some believe they are safe if they eat only wild Morels, Chanterelles or Porcini, but there is a mushroom called the false morel that is so toxic that even preparing it can be dangerous. The false chanterelle (Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca) mimics chanterelles and the Devil’s Bolete (Boletus satanas) has been mistaken for Porcini.

The only way to be 100% safe around wild mushrooms is to NEVER eat one and always wash your hands after touching them. I’ve been hunting wild mushrooms for many years and I wouldn’t dare eat one unless an expert was with me. If you are not an expert in mushroom identification and choose to eat wild mushrooms I would ask you: Is a plate full of mushrooms worth the risk of a liver transplant or death?

Read an account of “mild” poisoning written by a doctor who accidentally ate toxic mushrooms here:  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/26/magazine/26lives-t.html?adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1317203901-UK92q7xW6IFyH8XAzvqxKw

Photo of Death Cap copyright 2011 by Archenzo of Italy

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When you think of the holidays do you think of the aroma of baking apple pies? If so make some pomander balls and have your house smell like you are baking pies every day, all year long.

Pomanders are essentially balls of fragrance. They have been used since the 13th century and were originally any fragrant substance enclosed in a cloth bag or metal ball. They could be as simple as a cloth bag of herbs or as elaborate as a pierced golden ball full of ambergris or musk. They were used to ward off offensive odors, of which there were many.  Though pomanders originated in the Arab world, the word pomander comes from the French pomme d’ambre.  Pomme means apple, and amber is from ambergris; a very fragrant substance found in the gut of the sperm whale.

Today pomander balls are usually fruit studded with cloves and rolled in spices. If made correctly pomanders will be very fragrant and last for years. I have always used oranges for pomanders but any citrus fruit, apples or pears will do. The fruit chosen should be firm with no soft spots. Once you have chosen your fruit, begin studding it with whole cloves as in the photo below.

Cloves are flower buds harvested from a tropical tree (Syzygium aromaticum) and dried. The word clove comes from the Latin clavus, which means nail. If you look closely you will see that a clove does indeed resemble a nail, with a shank and a head. The shank end is pushed into the fruit. Cloves are sharp and an hour or two of pushing them into fruit can make your thumb ache a bit, so you might want to use a thimble, glove, or masking tape for protection.  As you slowly cover the fruit with cloves the increasing aroma will be quite enjoyable. Try to cover the entire fruit in one sitting.  Hint: Cloves are much cheaper if bought in bulk. I bought just over 4 oz. for $4.99 and used about half that on this huge orange.

Once your piece of fruit is covered with cloves, mix one tablespoon each of fragrant spices. Traditionally cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and powdered orris root are used, but I also add allspice and a pinch or two of ground cloves. You can add your own favorite spice or make substitutions.

Orris root comes from the root of a variety of German (bearded) iris known as Iris pallida; the Dalmatian or Sweet iris. This iris is cultivated specifically for its root, which smells like violets and has fixative properties that “fix” other fragrances. It may be hard to find locally but it is easy to order online. Using it will mean your pomander’s fragrance will last many years, but if you choose not to use it you can simply roll your pomander in spices if the fragrance starts to fade.  

Put the spice mix in a bowl and roll your pomander in it, making sure you cover it completely with the spices until it looks like the photo below. (You may have to spoon the spices over the fruit)

 The spices help cure and preserve the fruit so that it won’t mold or spoil. Leave the pomander in the bowl of spices and roll it in them each day.  As the fruit cures it will shrink and lose weight. After anywhere from 3 weeks to 3 months depending on the size and type of fruit chosen, it will be fully cured and will have lost as much as half its original size. When it feels very light and sounds hollow when tapped it is fully cured.  2 or 3 pomanders can be placed together in a decorative bowl and used as a very old fashioned air freshener, or individual balls can be hung with ribbon. Small, light fruits hung at the end of ribbons make excellent, Victorian style ornaments for the Christmas tree.

Note:  This method of making pomander balls comes from the book Potpourri, Incense and Other Fragrant Concoctions by Ann Tucker Fettner, published in 1977. I’ve used this method for over 30 years without a problem. However, there are other methods found online that I question.

One for instance, says that pomanders don’t have to be rolled in spices. Spices are what preserve the fruit and if they aren’t used it will spoil and mold rather than cure, so I’m not sure how this works.

Another method says to put the pomander and spices in a paper bag, and I question this because of the need for good air circulation to prevent mold. The great fragrance to be had from pomanders while they cure would also be lost.

Another method says that sandalwood oil can be used in place of orris root. While I can’t say this isn’t true, it seems to me that the sandalwood oil would overpower the apple pie-like fragrance of the spices, defeating the purpose.

Other methods say to first poke holes in the fruit and then insert the cloves into the holes. While this may work, if the holes are made too big the cloves will simply fall out of them and you’ll be left with what looks like a dusty, shriveled up piece of fruit.  

In any case, no matter which method you choose, the object is to have some fun doing something that is perhaps new and different, so I hope you will give it a try.

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