Posts Tagged ‘Gardening How To’

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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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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At first glance the nests of fall webworms (Hyphantria cunea, Drury) and tent caterpillars (Malacosoma americanum) might look identical, but the damage done to trees and shrubs by the residents of these nests is very different. 

Fall webworms appear in early fall and build their large, grayish, silky nests on the ends of tree branches. Often smaller branches and leaves will be enclosed by the nest. The caterpillars don’t leave the nest; if they run out of food they just make the nest bigger and enclose more leaves. They feed on the leaves of many species of trees, but do very little damage because by the time they begin feeding most trees have stopped photosynthesizing and are heading into dormancy. 

After about 6 weeks of feeding the larvae fall to the ground and pupate. Pupae usually over- winter in the ground but are occasionally found in old nests. Adults emerge in spring and lay their eggs on the undersides of leaves. After hatching in late summer or early fall the cycle begins again. 

Fall webworms have long white, off-white, or yellow hairs. The black headed variety is light greenish-yellow to pale yellow with two rows of black bumps down its body and the red headed variety is tan with orange to reddish bumps. 

Tent caterpillars appear in early spring as buds begin to open. They prefer fruit trees but can also be found on maples, hawthorn and others. Their nests are smaller and more compact than fall webworms and are found in the crotch of branches rather than at the ends. Often the caterpillars can be seen crawling over the outside surface of the nest. They feed in morning and early evening, and on warm nights. They do a lot of damage and can defoliate a tree in no time at all. Though the tree will usually grow new leaves it will have been severely weakened and may not bear fruit. As the larvae feed they will make the silky nest larger to enclose more foliage. 

Tent caterpillars are full grown in just over a month and leave the nest to make individual cocoons. As they search for a suitable spot to build their cocoon they can often be seen crawling on walks, walls, driveways, and tree trunks in late spring. After about 3 weeks an adult moth emerges from the cocoon, mates, and the female lays eggs on smaller branches. The eggs hatch in the spring and the cycle begins again.  

Tent caterpillars are black and hairy with a white stripe down the center of the back. They also have brown and yellow lines and a row of blue spots on their sides. 

Nests of either tent caterpillars or fall webworms can be removed by hand, wound on the end of a long stick, or pruned out of trees.  However they are removed, they should be destroyed afterwards.

 Photo of fall webworm nest on crabapple by the University of Illinois Extension Service

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The big difference between paperwhite narcissus (Narcissus tazzeta or papyraceus) and any other daffodil is that paperwhites don’t need a cool period, which means that they can be easily grown indoors as soon as you buy them with no extra work.

These bulbs are native to the Mediterranean region and are hardy only in zones 8 through 11. Here in the northeast if we plant them outside we have to treat them as we would any other summer flowering bulb, like dahlias or gladiolus. Paperwhites are available as soon as tulips and other spring flowering bulbs appear. When buying them, buy enough for a lengthy succession of bloom so you’ll have flowers throughout the winter.

To grow paperwhites all you really need is water, sunlight, and something to keep them from tipping over. (They can get quite tall if they don’t get enough sun.) I use shallow glass bowls about 4 inches deep and big enough to hold 3 to 5 bulbs. You should use a bowl with no drainage holes that is deep enough to contain the roots. I usually use plain pebbles or marble chips to give the bulbs support, but colored glass beads, washed gravel, or even colored aquarium gravel will work.  Put about an inch of gravel in the bottom of the bowl and nestle the bulbs down into it so the bulb sides are touching. Then fill around the bulbs with more stones or gravel until only about 1/2 to 1/3 of the bulb tops are exposed. Finally, fill the bowl with enough water to cover just the base of the bulbs. Set them on a cool, sunny windowsill and in about a month your house will be filled with their sweet fragrance.

  • Once bulbs are watered they should never be allowed to dry out or they may not bloom.  Check water level every other day with a finger if not using a see through container.
  • Pot up new bulbs every 2 weeks for winter long blooming.
  • As soon as bulbs set buds move them out of direct sunlight and they will blossom longer.
  • If the plants get too tall and begin to flop over, for your second bowl of bulbs follow the above directions but after a day of allowing the bulbs to absorb water, pour out any remaining water in the bowl. Immediately replace the water with a mixture of 9 parts water to 1 part alcohol. This can be vodka, gin, tequila, whiskey, or rubbing alcohol. Water the bulbs with this mixture from then on.  Researchers at Cornell University have discovered that alcohol affects the height of paperwhites but still allows them to bloom as usual. Do not use beer or wine as they contain sugar.
  • Paperwhites can also be planted in potting soil. Plant so 1/2 to 1/3 of the bulb is exposed above the soil line and keep constantly moist.
  • People bothered by strong fragrances may be sensitive to paperwhites. They are very fragrant and just 3 bulbs will fill an entire house with fragrance. You might try growing just one to start with if you have questions.

Photo copyright University of Florida Extension Service

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When planting bulbs in the fall it’s easy to forget how their foliage will look in the spring after the flowers fade. Let’s face it-ripening bulb foliage is not pretty, but since photosynthesis is the way the bulb makes and stores enough energy to bloom again the following season it is important that the foliage isn’t removed. Bulb foliage also shouldn’t be tied into bunches or flattened down to the soil surface either, because doing so will impede the process.

Unless planted in a bed dedicated only to bulbs, ripening bulb foliage is best hidden among the plants in a perennial bed or behind ornamental grasses. The foliage of bulbs planted between and behind perennials that reach a foot or more in height will be visible only until the surrounding perennials or grasses grow taller later in spring. From then on it will blend in and be much less noticeable.

If bulbs are planted in a bulb-only bed, their ripening foliage can still be hidden by planting taller annuals among them. Since most annuals have shallow root systems the holes don’t have to be dug so deep that bulbs are disturbed.

Another method of hiding ripening bulb foliage is moving the bulbs and “heeling them in” in another location. This is labor intensive and requires accurate labeling of the bulbs so they don’t get confused.  A label that says “Red Tulips” won’t be much help when re-planting in the fall, so variety, height and blooming time should be noted.

To heel bulbs in first dig a trench about six inches deep and as wide in a sunny spot. With a spade or fork, carefully lift the bulbs from their current location, keeping the foliage intact, and replant them in the trench. When the bulb foliage is brown and pulls from the bulbs easily the bulbs can be dug up and dried, out of direct sunlight in a spot with good air circulation like a carport or porch. Once dry the bulbs should have all loose soil brushed from them before they are stored in a cool, dry place until fall planting. Any soft or damaged bulbs should be discarded. As I said-labor intensive!

Bulbs that are naturalized, which is a process in which handfuls of bulbs (usually daffodils) are tossed on the ground and then planted where they fall, also need time for foliage ripening, so naturalizing should be done only in areas that don’t have to be mowed until early summer.

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I had written something else for today but I since frost is the hot topic I thought I’d talk about the weather instead. I know-everybody talks about it but nobody ever does anything about it!

All the signs were pointing to frost yesterday afternoon but we dodged a bullet here in suburbia. It’s mighty nippy out there right now at 6:00 am, (about 38°F) but I’m not seeing any frost. Since it’s always coldest (and darkest) just before dawn, I think the danger has passed. Yesterday we had falling temperatures through the afternoon with clear skies and no wind last night, and these are usually sure signs that frost is on the way, so I’m surprised. 

Clouds act like a blanket and keep temperatures from falling too fast, but clear skies allow radiational cooling, which just means that all the warmth escapes into the atmosphere. Wind stirs up the atmosphere and keeps cold air from settling and staying in one spot, but on windless nights the cold can pool in low spots and cause leaf surface temperatures to cool rapidly. When the surface of a leaf reaches 32° F water vapor can form ice crystals on it, and that is frost. Because cold air sinks, a thermometer 5 feet off the ground might read 40° F, while at ground level where plants are it can be freezing. This is when people ask how we can have frost when it’s so warm.

 A fact I find interesting is that cold air flows downhill much the same as water does. I once had clients who lived at the top of a hill and their first frost was always a week or two later than the unlucky folks at the bottom of the hill. I was also able to plant their vegetable garden much earlier in the spring because their higher elevation warmed earlier.

Speaking of vegetables, I hope everyone has their tarps or sheets ready. There was light snow on top of Cannon Mountain up in the White Mountains yesterday morning at an elevation of 4,080 feet, so it won’t be long before we see frost.

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From now until May, all bets are off!

I have already posted most of this in the September gardening guide on nhgardensolutions.com, but in case any of you missed it:

Though you may hear that it’s anywhere from the 11th to the 21st, tomorrow, September 15th is the traditional first frost date for this area and weathermen are calling for nighttime temps in the 30s by the end of this week. Though usually light and scattered at this time of the month, frost should be expected from now on. On average, in Keene, NH on September 15th the chance of frost is about 50%. By September 27th it is closer to 90%.

Gardeners should watch forecasts carefully and be prepared to cover their tender vegetables like tomatoes, annuals, and other tender plants with tarps, sheets, or even newspaper at short notice.  Hardy crops like those in the cabbage family, any root crops, most perennials, and garden mums will be fine uncovered.

If you are overwhelmed by green tomatoes and don’t want to cover them, pull the plants up by the roots, (or dig them) knock off all loose soil, tie some stout twine around the base of the stem and hang them upside down in a shed, garage or basement. Any bits of soil remaining on the roots will help keep them moist. Most of the tomatoes will still ripen in spite of such harsh treatment. This should be done before a frost kills the foliage, and they should be in a place where temps won’t fall below 32 degrees F after they are hung.

Over the previous two weeks house plants should have been slowly acclimated to growing indoors once again by being brought in over night. If not they should be brought in now or at least put undercover on a porch or in a garage.  Tropical houseplants will suffer any time the nighttime temperatures fall much below 55 degrees F and even a light frost can finish them off, so they shouldn’t be outside at night. Leaving the windows open during the day after they are brought in will also help them adjust.

Those wishing to do more planting or transplanting of spring bulbs, perennials, shrubs and trees shouldn’t despair because there is still plenty of time for new plantings to establish good root systems before the soil freezes solid in December.  It may seem like we’ve had a lot of rain lately, but new plantings should still be watered deeply at least once each week and more often if it hasn’t rained. Plants can lose a lot of moisture in winter and soil moisture amounts can be very deceiving at this time of year, so they should be monitored to make sure that soil is good and moist when it finally freezes. Don’t rush to put those hoses away!

I found the photo of frost rimmed leaves on a website that offered free nature screen savers .

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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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Most of us probably imagine shady spots in the garden as cool, moist places that we don’t have to worry about watering, but more often than not that isn’t the case. In my back yard, which is bordered by forest on 3 sides, I’ve planted shrubs and perennials between the lawn and forest on each side. Though it’s shady there, the shade isn’t dense because the slanting rays of the rising and setting sun are enough to keep most plants happy. The real challenge in these areas is the overhanging trees.

Some trees have such dense crowns that they can keep a light rainfall from reaching the ground. I have mostly hemlocks bordering my yard and these trees are so dense that it isn’t unusual for the soil under them to be perfectly dry after a drizzle. In fact, I have stood under them when it was raining quite hard in the past and didn’t feel a drop. This can be a problem, but there are solutions.

To start with I chose plants that could stand both shade and dry soil. Fortunately there are many shrubs and perennials from which to choose; Hosta, foxglove, native coral bells (Heuchera Americana), Astilbe, daylilies, wild ginger, and many other perennials will do quite well in dry shade. For shrub choices, Kerria Japonica, hydrangea, many viburnums, rhododendrons, and azaleas will do well. Many spring bulbs do well in dry, shady places, and many wildflowers, grasses, and ferns often prefer them. Many groundcovers like pachysandra, sedums and vinca will also thrive in dry shade.

I also thinned out some of the tree branches with a pole pruner. I didn’t want to cut the trees down or completely scalp them up one side, so I took my time and selected those branches which, if removed, would let a little more rain reach the ground. The result is that you would hardly know any branches had been removed and most of my plants now get watered even in a light rain.

Still, there is a lot of competition from tree roots so I water any dry shade areas deeply at least once each week, depending on rainfall. This is important; watering the entire area helps ensure that the tree roots aren’t soaking up every drop of moisture from the soil that your plants are in. Trees also soak up nutrients, so I make sure any plants under them are well fed, giving them a good side dressing of compost in addition to their regular fertilizing.

The secret (if there is one) to growing plants in dry shade is to first read about the plants you’d like to grow there. Obviously, if the plant you have chosen prefers soil that is constantly moist you wouldn’t plant it in dry shade unless you didn’t mind watering every other day. Knowing what conditions plants require and giving them just a little extra attention means you can grow quite a large selection in dry shade.

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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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