Posts Tagged ‘Do it Yourself’

My favorite choice for a Christmas tree is a balsam fir, which is the tree I remember my family always decorating when I was a boy. Back then we didn’t have all of the choices in Christmas trees that we do today. In fact, I can’t remember anyone having anything but balsam fir which, until about 20 years ago, was the most popular cut tree.

Memories aren’t the only reason I like balsam fir though; fragrance is big on my list as well and balsam fir is the most fragrant of all trees. Fraser fir, which is kind of a southern cousin of balsam fir, runs a close second. Needle retention is another biggie, and balsam fir will retain its needles for weeks provided it has plenty of water and is fresh when bought. I check that by bending the branches, which should bend easily without breaking. The same goes for the needles; on a fir they should feel soft and bend easily without breaking. They should also stay on the branch when you run your hand along it or bang the butt end of the trunk on a hard surface.  If more than a few needles drop off I pass it by.

Cutting a half inch of trunk off when I get the tree home means that it will absorb more water than if it isn’t cut, and letting it sit in a bucket of warm water for an hour or so before I bring it in will get the water flowing.  Having to cut off 2 or 3 inches of trunk is a myth, as is adding aspirin or fertilizer to the water. Adding anything to the water just gums up the works and can actually inhibit water absorption.  It might make the tree owner feel better, but it does nothing for the tree.

Once I get it set up in a cool spot out of full sun I’ll make sure it has plenty of water by filling the stand every day.  A tree can drink up to a gallon and a half of water per day when it is freshly cut, and if it runs out of water it’s almost impossible to get it absorbing it again. Hot water in the stand might get the tree drinking again, but most likely it will just dry out and start dropping needles.  Once that happens, it’s all done.

I think I’m going to be lazy again this year and get a pre cut tree rather than cut it myself and drag it for what seems like 5 miles to my truck. That was fun when the kids were small but now, no so much.

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I have a friend who is against forcing bulbs because, she says, “it isn’t natural.” Forcing simply means that you are exposing bulbs to warmth sooner than if they were growing outside, so I’m not sure it could be considered unnatural either. Most spring flowering bulbs, except paper white narcissus which don’t need a cold period, can be forced, including the smaller grape hyacinth, crocus, and scilla.

Forcing bulbs is easy; simply pot up your favorite bulbs in soilless potting mix, water them well and then put them in a cold, but not freezing, place for at least 15 weeks.  Cool soil stimulates root growth, which continues until it gets quite cold. Warmth after the cool period stimulates top growth and flowers.

Using the correct soil is probably the most important part of forcing bulbs because they will not stand soggy soil. A soilless potting mix like pro mix is an excellent choice, or you can make your own with 2 parts compost, 2 parts sphagnum peat moss, 1 part vermiculite and 1 part perlite. Personally I find using pre mixed easier.

Fill the pot half full of mix, place the bulbs in it and finish filling around them.  Do not compact the potting mix. Give them a good soaking to settle the mix and then add more if necessary.  When finished the tip of the bulb should be just peeking out of the potting mix. Tulip bulbs should have their flat side toward the pot, because this is where the first leave will form. Label the bulbs clearly!

After potting I dig a trench just deep enough to sink the pots to the top of their rims and then pack leaves or straw loosely around the pots. Then I cover the pots and trench with a foot deep mulch of leaves or straw. Finally I cover everything with plastic or a tarp so it doesn’t get wet and become a big frozen together mass. After 15 weeks I pull back the plastic and mulch, grab a pot of bulbs, bring them inside and water them, set them in a cool spot until I see top growth, and then set them in a bright window. 

You can also use an unheated shed, garage, crawlspace, or even a refrigerator. Many people put them in cold frames but the temperature can rise quickly on sunny winter days, so the top will have to be opened occasionally to keep the temperature at or below 45º F (7.2º C). Bulbs need cold but they shouldn’t freeze, so temperatures shouldn’t fall below 35 º F (1.6º C). Bulbs cooled in a trench should go in no later than November 15th for late February blooming. 

When bulbs have finished blooming put them in the coolest, sunniest spot available and continue watering until they can be planted outside. It may take up to 2 years for the bulbs to produce large blooms again after they have been forced.

 Tulip Potting Photo by Iowa State University Extension service


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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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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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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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What do apples, quince, apricots, plums, cherries, peaches, pears, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, and almonds have in common? They are all in the rose (Rosaceae ) family, and just like all their cousins, roses have edible fruit. If you don’t deadhead your roses they will produce red, orange, purple or black fruits which are known as a hips or haws. Rose hips can be smaller than a pea or as large as a cherry tomato. 

Rose hips are one of the richest sources of vitamin C known. During World War 2 vitamin C syrup was made from rose hips because citrus fruits were almost impossible to find. These days the easily made sweet and spicy syrup is very good on vanilla ice cream or pancakes.

Rose hips can cost as much as $25.00 per pound in health food stores, which is more than the price of a rose bush, so it is worth growing your own. The best rose hips for harvesting are found on Rosa rugosa, named for the wrinkled (rugose) surface of its leaves. The very tough Rosa rugosa is also called shrub rose, landscape rose, salt spray rose, old fashioned rose, or wild rose. The white, yellow, pink or purple blossoms can be single, semi-double, or double and are very fragrant. The 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 inch blossoms appear at the ends of very prickly, 3-4 foot stems from June through frost. The best time to harvest rose hips is after the first frost because frost removes some of the tartness. Choose fruit that is firm and has good, deep color.

Fresh or dried rose hips can be used in many recipes, including a tea that is very soothing for a sore throat. Many recipes are easily found on line or in herbal cook books. No matter how they are used, the seeds inside rose hips should always be removed before use because they have a hairy covering that can be irritating. To prepare, trim the stem and blossom ends from the fruit and cut them in half, then remove the seeds. Most recipes call for boiling and straining the fruit so this will remove any seeds that were missed during cleaning.  Aluminum pans and utensils should not be used because they will react with and discolor the rose hips.

To Dry Rose Hips: Prepare as above and dry on screens in single layers. Allow good air circulation. When completely dry store in tightly closed containers.

Rose Hip Tea:  Cover and boil 2 tablespoons of fresh or dried hips per pint of water for 10-15 minutes in a glass or stainless steel pan. If whole fresh hips are used, after they have expanded and split, carefully strain through a fine mesh sieve to remove any seeds. Add sugar, honey or a mint sprig.

One final note: Birds love rose hips and rose blossoms attract bees and butterflies.



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The cooler temperatures and more frequent rains of September mean mushrooms will be popping up all over. Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies (reproductive organs) of a fungus. Typically (though not always) they have stems, caps, and gills on the underside of the cap. Mushrooms are not plants and do not produce seeds. In the case of the gilled mushrooms, they produce spores on their gills. When the mushroom is ready to release its spores they fall from the gills to the soil surface where they appear as a powdery substance.

Mushroom spores can be white, brown, black, brownish purple, pink, yellow, off white and rarely red, but the color of the spores isn’t always the same color as the gills, and that’s where the fun of making spore prints comes in.

When the stem is broken from a mushroom and the cap is placed gill side down on a piece of paper, the spores fall onto the paper and make a spore print, which helps in identification. You never know what color the spores will be but most are white. I often start with black paper, but any dark color will do. Once the mushroom cap is on the paper I cover it with a small bowl to keep it moist. If it seems overly dry I sprinkle two or three drops of water on top of the cap to moisten it. This is important because a dry cap might not release its spores.  I leave it covered overnight and in the morning remove the bowl and carefully lift the mushroom cap straight up so as not to smudge the spore print. If everything has gone well, I see something like in the photo below. If a spore print isn’t visible the spores might be the same color as the paper or the cap might have dried out before I picked it. Or it could have already released all of its spores. In any case, I try again!


 Spore prints smudge easily before they’ve dried completely, so I let them dry covered for a day and then spray them with artist’s fixative (or hair spray). Fixative is used to keep charcoal and pastel drawings from smudging and can be found at any art supply store.  Then if I’m happy with the results I frame it, which transforms it into a very unusual art object.



 Note: Small children should always be closely supervised when working with any mushrooms gathered in the wild. Some, like the yellow Amanita muscaria in the photo at the top of the page, are extremely poisonous. It’s also a good idea to wash your hands after handling them and their spores.





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Powdery mildew is a caused by any one of over 1600 species of fungus and makes leaf surfaces appear as if they had been dusted with gray or white talcum powder. Most species of fungi that cause powdery mildew are host specific, which means the mildew on your lilacs won’t attack your squash. The fungus produces mycelium (fungal threads) that grow on the surface of the plant but don’t invade the tissues themselves. Fungi feed by sending haustoria, or root-like structures, into the epidermal (top) cells of the plant.

Powdery mildew thrives when days are warm and dry and nights are cool. Cool, shaded areas where air circulation is poor and humidity is high are perfect breeding grounds, so susceptible plants should be planted in full sun far enough apart for air to circulate freely around them. Powdery mildew does not need a wet leaf surface to grow, but overhead watering raises humidity and can splash spores from infected plants to healthy plants, so watering should always be done from below, as with a soaker hose. Applications of high nitrogen fertilizer in late summer should be avoided because mildew prefers young, tender growth.

I have phlox and lilac that get infected each year but still bloom well the following season, so I don’t get overly concerned with powdery mildew. As an experiment, this year I planted a mildew resistant variety of tall phlox called Blue Boy, which so far hasn’t shown any signs of mildew. Pruning a few stems from the center of non resistant plants with dense crowns will increase air circulation.

The fungus does far more damage to vegetables than ornamentals and can spread quickly through squash, melon, and cucumber beds.  Planting mildew resistant varieties and pruning infected leaves from plants at the first sign of infection will go a long way in controlling the fungus.

Sprays can also be used for prevention and control. Studies by scientists in Brazil show that a spray made of 1 part milk to 9 parts water reduced the severity of powdery mildew infection by 90% on squash plants. Weekly applications have been shown to work well.

Another spray is made by mixing 1 tablespoon of baking soda, 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil, and 1 tablespoon of liquid dish soap in 1 gallon of water. Spray weekly, preferably on overcast days to avoid burning leaves.

Neither of these sprays will kill existing powdery mildew, but they will prevent its spread.  The disease can complete a cycle in as little as 72 hours, so it is important to inspect plants regularly and begin spraying at the first sign of infection.

Since the fungus over-winters on plant debris and in dormant bud scales, sanitation is an important part of control. All infected plant debris should be removed from the garden in the fall and destroyed. Never put infected plant debris in a compost pile.

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Where two sidewalks join in a 90 degree “L” shape quite often you find that people, instead of following one sidewalk to the end and then turning onto the other, have instead created a well worn path between the two legs of the L, so the result forms a triangle. This well worn path is called a desire line, also known as a social trail or desire path.

First coined in 1958 by French scientist, philosopher, and poet Gaston Bachelard in his book The Poetics of Space, the term desire path is now used by landscape architects to describe “a path that isn’t designed but rather is worn away casually by people finding the shortest distance between two points.”

Once we find the shortest path between two points we will use it over and over again. Many believe that interstate 95 between Boston, MA and Providence, RI follows a desire line worn away by many years of Native American travel.

Though its origin isn’t known there is a story of a landscape architect who, when laying out a university, didn’t put in any pathways. Instead he put in lawns and let the students find their natural desire lines.  Once these lines had worn through the sod, the architect had workmen install paved pathways where the desire lines appeared. 

If we pay close attention most of us will find that we have created desire lines in our own yards, even if the sod hasn’t worn through. The path taken to the tool shed, compost pile or vegetable garden is probably used again and again and is most likely the shortest distance between the house and whatever outlying point we wish to reach. If we decide to lay out paved pathways through our yard and gardens, we should always be aware of these desire lines and use them as much as possible in our plans.

Studies have shown that our penchant for straight lines is so strong that even when an obstruction is placed in our path we will simply go around it and return to the original straight line, so this should also be considered when planning a winding path. There should always be an obvious and valid reason for curving a path, such as a tree, shrub, or other object that breaks up the straight line naturally, without appearing artificial or contrived.



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Why cast leaves in concrete? Well, why not? It’s fun, easy, and relatively inexpensive to do and when you are done you have a piece of garden art, a stepping stone for a path, or a small bird bath. You can use any large leaves like hosta, cabbage, rhubarb, burdock, or what have you. Some plants with huge leaves make dramatic castings and can be used as planters. They can even be painted to appear life like.

A friend told me about this a few months ago, so I thought I’d give it a try. The biggest expense is the bag of concrete, but that is less than $11.00 and you can make several castings with one bag. I use Quickcrete vinyl concrete patch because it dries fast and leaves a smooth finish. Some people also add coloring agents and fortifiers, but each extra item you add adds to the cost. The castings seem strong enough without concrete fortifier.


In addition to the concrete mix I used plastic wrap, something to mix in, something to stir with, rubber gloves, a dust mask, water, and a large pile of moist sand. Sand can also be bought in bags if necessary.


Here I’m using a hosta leaf. Since the ribs and veins are more prominent on leaf undersides, I put the leaf face up on the sand. To cast a leaf you need to think in reverse; if you want a bowl shape lay the leaf over a mound of sand. For an arched leaf casting, make a depression in the sand, and for a flat casting, level the sand.


Once I had the sand molded the way I wanted it, I removed the leaf and put plastic wrap over the sand. This keeps the sand out of the concrete and lets you finish the edges of the leaf.  The leaf should be face down on the plastic wrap before adding the concrete.


I mixed the concrete to a toothpaste or brownie mix consistency by adding water slowly so it didn’t become too soupy. Soupy mix will run off of the leaf. When I had the concrete mix at the correct consistency, I put some in the center of the leaf.


What is shown in this picture will be the underside of the finished casting. With my hand, I patted down and worked the concrete mix from the center of the leaf out toward the edges as shown. This is where the rubber gloves come in handy. The finished casting should be about 3/8 to 1/2 of an inch thick in the center and slightly thinner at the leaf edges. If it is a little thicker it will just take a little longer to dry. According to what I’ve read, the concrete on very large leaves should be up to about 1 inch thick.

If I wanted a casting you could hang, at this stage I would lay a loop of sturdy wire (like coat hanger wire) into the wet concrete and then cover it with more concrete. If leaves are bigger than 14 inches across it’s a good idea to reinforce them with wallboard tape or chicken wire at this stage so they don’t crack later on. Just lay the wall board tape or wire on top of the wet concrete and cover with more of the mix, smoothing as you go.


I gently pull the plastic wrap toward the leaf edges so the concrete mix doesn’t flow out beyond them. Peeking under the leaf as you pull the plastic wrap toward the center shows where the leaf edges are. This makes a nice clean edge. After I’m satisfied, I leave the casting just as it is shown for two days. If it’s supposed to rain, I cover it.


Once the concrete is dry, smooth surfaced leaves like hosta will peel away from the dry concrete easily. This picture shows the casting after about half of the leaf was peeled away. Hairy leaves like rhubarb or burdock may need to be scrubbed off with a wire brush after decomposing for a day or two. Some leaves might also stain the concrete slightly.


This is my first attempt at painting a concrete leaf that was cast earlier. It’s supposed to resemble a leaf from a green and white hosta variety known as “minuteman,” but for some reason this photo seems to have a bluish tint to it. Oh well-at least it shows what it is possible to do with leaf castings, and that’s the whole point. Next time I’ll use stiffer brushes and flat paint. This was done with foam brushes, which made getting sharp edges difficult. The satin paint also seems a little too shiny for my tastes.

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