Friday, December 5, 2014

Christmas Fun

           In past years I’ve covered so many Christmas subjects -\- good gifts for gardeners,  Christmas tree suggestions, (both good and bad) and various decoration solutions, plus a few  Christmas experiences. on Locust Hill\.  Ah, but  I don’t believe I’ve ever written about mistletoe, a Christmas tradition practiced all around the world, so let’s take a look.

            The quaint idea of kissing under  the mistletoe  started in the early 1700s. At first the custom included removing one of the pearly white berries after being kissed, and once the bouquet no longer had  berries it was considered very bad luck to be kissed under it.  Since  this limited the amount of kissing done, this part 
of the custom was soon dropped.


         Another part of the original tradition was the fact that a boy and girl who kissed under the little  cluster of yellowy green leaves would  supposedly  wed within the year. That tradition  also melted away so that now any old fool can kiss any young thing and get away with it.

            Mistletoe  doesn't grow in New England, but can usualy be found in our florist shops at Christmas time. In the south it produces small yellowish blossoms in February or March,  My old school roommate, who lives in Natchez, Miss. used to send  me a bunch wrapped up in the feathery gray sprays of Spanish moss.  Both these plants are parasites. They grow on live oaks and are considered a terrible nuisance. They live for years, only dying when they’ve managed to kill their host tree.
            Phoradendron viscum, the Latin name for mistletoe,  describes it well as Phoradendron  means tree thief, while viscum describes  the mucus-like quality of the berries.  When a bird eats a berry, he gets a very sticky beak which usually contains a few seeds. To clean it, he wipes the viscous pulp off on a branch. The pulp protects the seeds until they are ready to germinate, at which point a sucker root penetrates the tree's bark and connects with its vascular tissue.  Sounds a bit like Dracula, doesn’t  it?

Rather than leave you with this unattractive thought,  I'd like to end the column with a description of a great game my family plays at Christmas called the Basket Challenge. You will need the following paraphernalia.
Two straight-backed chairs 
A study laundry basket with two handles

A cane, a strong broom or shovel and 4 handkerchiefs 

This photo shows how to set up the game.  Slip the broom through the basket handles and then set it on the two chairs.  Drape the handkerchiefs on the chair corners.  The first contestant sits on the broom handle with his feet in the basket, balancing himself with the cane.  The object is to knock all four of the handkerchiefs  off the chairs with the cane. 

Of course not many contestants manage this feat without falling out of the basket like Hank, pictured below.  But I can still remember my father, and sometimes even my grandmother usually succeeded.  It's best to set up this game on a nice thick rug. 

Wishing you all a wonderful Christmas and a very happy New Year!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Incumbents in the Garden

           At last, the mid-term election is over. No, there are a few races still undecided, but the most important  result, a Senate dominated by Republicans, is settled.   Harry Reid will soon be replaced by Mitch McConnell as the new Majority Leader!  It took a long hot summer and fall, but I think the American public finally concluded that Obama’s extremely expanded government is not a very good way to run our country.

        My head is still full of politics, but it’s  time to get back to gardening, I thought it would be fun to talk about perennials, the incumbents  who survive for years in the garden the same way government officials seem to  remain at their posts from one decade to the next. 

          Perennials quickly become familiar with  their territory, their roots growing deep and well-established.  I think my lemon lilies have survived at least 4 terms, and even though I can think of many new candidates that would perform with more flair, I can’t bring myself to vote them out of office.  They contribute bright splotches of color when other incumbents are in recess.  Day lilies come in many colors, so if yellow doesn’t appeal to you, try a pink and maroon one.

          Lilies  do not produce seedling to bring along another generation. Quite a few  perennials do this however.  The phlox plants always start  new seedlings, as do lobelias, but feverfew tops the list, producing cousins, nieces and nephews by the dozen,  the same way  some politicians do.  This year even Jimmy Carter’s grandson and Sam Nunn’s daughter joined the crowd of  candidates. And you can be sure another Clinton will soon join the list.   


        There are many gray-haired plants in the garden, most of them of the Artemesia family. Gray is a very helpful color, especially in keeping apart other perennials who don't get along.  Unfortunately Wormwood, the most common  member can be a trouble-maker. He is very pushy, covering more and more territory if he;s not kept in check.  Luckily his roots are shallow and easily pulled, but if  we neglect this job,  the photo above illustrates the result.  There’s no pulling the roots of this Wormwood.

        Monarda, also called Bee Balm, a red-headed Raggedy Ann,  is one of the best plants to provide bright red in the garden, and although she likes to cover more and more space each year, she’s quite ladylike compared that old man Wormwood.  Red is a powerful color in the garden but when it becomes too dominant, it’s easy enough to give Miss Bee Balm a haircut. In early spring just pull apart that tightly woven mat of red, loosen its roots and replant some of them in a different spot that needs brightening. 

        Let’s look at some of the garden incumbents that seem to have no faults at all.  The peony tops this list.  It is almost immortal, but it never tries to add relations to the bed. If planted in late September, its pink eyes just below the surface, the following spring it will start to offer its heavenly scented blooms, and go on doing so every year. Tree peonies are equally rewarding, and both species are rarely bothered by insects. If you find a white tree peony too boring, try a pink one.

        I think my favorite perennial is the lupine. Its leaves pop up early each spring. They look like little green hands and often hold a single drop of dew in the early morning. So appealing. I wish I'd taken a picture of one last spring.

        The lupine's flowers are equally appealing.  For many years they only came with blue spires, often turning large stretches in open meadows sky blue,  but nowadays they come in all colors, yellow, white and pink. as well as blue. 

         Unfortunately lupines do have one problem, aphids.  It’s not their fault, it’s just that aphids love them, as well as many other perennials. The solution is to keep an eye out and catch these varmints EARLY with a dose of Rotenone. When a spire's blossoms have turned gray with seeds, cut them off so new blooms are encouraged to take their place. 

      A well-behaved but less colorful perennial I like is Lady’s Mantle.  Unlike many perennials that grow as a clump and allow other plants to pop up in even the strongest union of roots like the previous photo of an astilbe, Lady’s Mantle doesn't allow usurpers to spoil her clump as she has such a thick circle of  roots, topped with round green leaves and soft white flowers.

       This plant increases in size every year so that after three or four years you can divide her and get two for the price of one.   I think she's very attractive, but garden books rarely include pictures of colorless plants, so the photo below is one from garden, looking very worn out now that cold weather has arrived.   

I'm afraid this column didn't offer you much new information,  but I had a bit  of fun writing it.  

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Plant Some Luscious Raspberries

           I think Jack Frost is a little confused about Global Warming.  He’s been playing hide and seek here in the northwest corner.  One day he makes me frantic to turn off all the outside water faucets before they freeze,  the next he's disappeared so we get to enjoy a day with temperatures as warm as May. Warm or cold, it's time to face fall chores.  
          There’s one job  I always try to do, even if I have to wear mittens. and that' preparing the raspberry beds for winter. Do you have a raspberry bed?  Growing these delicious berries is about as tricky as growing a beard.  I speak from second-hand experience I hasten to add. It surely must be as delightful to not have to scrape one’s face every morning  as it is to have fresh raspberries  on one’s cereal or raspberry jam on one’s toast. 
            Because raspberry plants reproduce as rampantly  as rabbits, 10 canes makes a good start on a bed since they will all send out underground stolens to make new plants. These children are easily dug up and replanted to extend the bed, and in a few years you will have  enough raspberries to treat the entire family. 
            All raspberry plants are perennial, continuing to live for years, but their canes are biennial.  In their first year all they do is grow. The second year they branch,  blossom,  produce fruit, and, exhausted by all this heroic effort, die. These dead stalks should be removed each fall.  Of the four or five new stalks that have appeared on each plant, all but two should also be removed.
            My bed contains a very hardy variety called Latham that gives an excellent yield each each summer, but only that one crop, so one year I bought some Fall Gold, This variety has amazingly sweet berries.  They literally melt in your mouth! It has two crops, one in late July, and a much bigger crop in late September. 

 Unfortunately I’d planted mine too close to the Lathams, who began to crowd them out, so the following spring I faced moving the Fall Gold to a safer place.  But where?  The only good area I could think of was halfway down the hill on the south side of Hank’s shop, not very sunny, but easy digging.  

"Out of sight, out of mind " was the problem. In the last few years I"ve totally neglected them except to eat the berries. That was not allowed when the kids were young. You had to fill your container  (the one pictured below is easy to make and leaves your hands free to pick.) and then you could eat.  

This fall there were more dead stalks than live ones, and the live ones  were so tall they were falling over,  They were loaded with ripe berries however. The young man who now rents the shop is the first tenant I've had who hasn’t  constantly snitched all the ripe berries.  It turns out he doesn’t  like raspberries!  That made it  really worthwhile to give the poor bed a helping hand.  

First I cut out all the dead stalks, something I should have been doing every fall, and  pulled the tangles of  weeds that were suffocating them. That was a good start, but the  tall plants badly needed staking.  Sumacs make ideal stakes, so I cut six from the sheep pasture and returned to the shop eager to put them in.   

 Unfortunately  I’d made them so tall and I was so short, I couldn’t do it.  But just then Matt, the  tenant who doesn’t  like raspberries came out the shop door, took my hammer and in five minutes had pounded in all six stakes and helped me stretch a line of baling twine from one to the next to hold up the falling down plants. What a guy!  I went home and filled a basket with tomatoes, cukes, beans and peppers for him. 

By the end of the week I'd filled the empty spaces with  8 or 9 new seedlings that had appeared, but I couldn't cut back the tall plants as they are still full of ripening berries. The bed looks pretty ragged, but those melt-in-your-mouth fruits are too delicious to waste. 

I hope this column inspires a few of you to try growing raspberries.  They  really are as tricky as growing a beard. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Finally! Autmn Colors

When you live with something all your life it is easy to take it for granted.  We New Englanders revel in Mother Nature’s autumn extravaganza, but rarely do we stop to think how fortunate we are when we see all those incredible colors.  This year, however, we had to wait until October 13th to see our deciduous trees turn into a blaze of red and gold, and I think the wait made us really appreciate it when it finally arrived.   
I used to think that it was Jack Frost who started this glorious  panorama by cutting off the chlorophyll that hides the other leaf pigments, but I was wrong. Jack hasn't even appeared.  So who turns off the chlorophyll?   
It's an enzyme at the base of the petiole of each leaf . It digests the cell walls, cutting off  photosynthesis. This is a programmed response built into the life cycle of each tree species to prepare it for winter when the ground is frozen and there is insufficient water to counteract leaf evaporation.
            Once the strong green pigments have stopped working, the yellow pigments are revealed, along with the scarlet and purple pigments. All these colorful tints require good light and high sugar content for their development.  Trees that have been unable to trap sufficient sugar in their leaves, produce softer colors than ones growing in the open.
            New England is one of the few places in the world where this phenomenal spectacle occurs, and so our roads are suddenly clogged with leaf peepers. And who can blame them?   Bed & Breakfasts love this show Mother Nature puts on.  They are booked months in advance, and provide hot lines in various states to inform callers when the peak of the color will occur.

Did you think, as I did, that  we were really not going to have an autumn extravaganza this year?   No rain, no frost, no real display of color,  The pathetic photo above of red sumac was the only color I found in the week before Columbus Day!  I was thinking I might have to write about something else.  But finally Mother Nature produced her Autumn extravaganza.

Suddenly the world was sparkling with gold,   The bright yellow leaves of ash and birch were everywhere, Willows, witch hazel, even a few lilacs had yellow leave. Willow, witch hazel, even a few lilacs had yellow leaves, The only red I saw was the top of a red oak, its lower half fading fast. 

The red leaves of sugar maples barely lasted a day this year, their  rosy hue quickly turning brown, and my dogwood's purple leaves blew away in the rain.  
       Locust Hill offers very little fall color now that the front yard has lost its sugar maple which looked  so bright and cheerful every year. Our many locust trees turn a dreary gray each fall.  But unlike the maple which requires hours of raking, their delicate leaves       disappear all by themselves before winter arrives.  The big silver     maple just stays green until its leaves finally lose their grip and       spiral down to earth.                                                                          
        I have a single burning bush, but it hasn't decided it's time to put on that brilliant red coat, so the one below sits in someone else's yard.                                                                                                    

I think our having to wait until Columbus Day to get  our autumn extravaganza was a good reminder that we shouldn’t take things for granted and keep remember how very lucky we are.                         

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Haste Makes Serious Waste

The Border before I ruined it. 

Two summers ago I wrote  several columns about a book titled “Gardening For a Lifetime” by Sydney Edison.  It was  full of wonderful suggestions for elderly gardeners like me who no longer have the energy to cope with all the work a large garden requires.  In my case, the large garden was a  perennial border 100 feet long.

I spent that summer and the next following Ms. Edison’s  ideas.  What an irony – working on making the border less work was far more work than I’d ever tackled in the past.

One of Ms. Edison’s first recommendations was to  replace tall plants that require constant work with slow-growing flowering shrubs.  Since my border’s tallest plants were white and pink phlox whose stalks had to be cut with a clipper each fall, they were the first plants that came to mind.  I could break off the stems easily if I waited until spring, but  by then the plants always had time to spread their ripe seeds around the border, usually in the front where tall plants don’t belong. 

When I discovered that the Douglas Library in Canaan was to have a plant sale in late May, I was inspired.  I dug up at least 8 or 9 phlox plants, a really heavy job, and gave them to the library for their sale.  My plan was to replace them with flowering shrubs,  but as many of my readers know,  I’m a parsimonious old lady, and most of my border has been created  with freebies from friends.  As a consequence, I was appalled by the prices of flowering shrubs!  It took me all of June to face spending  $40 or more per shrub, and half  of July to plant them all. 

Mrs. Edison’s second suggestion was to replace  misbehaving plants  with easy-care plants such as hostas or grasses that don’t require  constant work.   By then it was almost August,  not a good time to expect new plants to do well, so I spent the rest of the summer coping with my much neglected vegetable garden and raspberry  bed.

The second summer was even worse as I realized I hadn’t given a thought to the color, size, texture or time of bloom that  makes a garden beautiful.  The shrubs I'd bought hadn't grown tall enough to be seen and I'd forgotten half their names. too busy  getting them planted so they could cope with their new surroundings before summer's serious heat arrived.

I continued  working on the border, but all my digging and transplanting was no longer any fun. Was this day lily  the beautiful one with maroon flowers I’d transplanted or one of the common yellow ones?   Why had I  planted  that rosy red sedum behind that big stand of feverfew so it couldn’t even be seen?  And that new hosta, so close to a clump of wild blue geraniums that were now smothering it?

This past spring the border had hardly any color, just a lot of yellow.  Heliopsis, lemon lilies, a few daffodils and a lot of gray Artemisea which had happily spread in all directions. The border 
needed serious help, but I was too discouraged to face it. Instead  I spent the summer on the dozens of other outside chores on Locust Hill I'd been neglecting. 

In early September a gardening friend stopped by and when she noticed the border, commented on how nice it looked. Having deliberately ignored it all summer, I glanced across the lawn and much to my surprise, realized the border didn’t look half bad. There were lots of  blooming  blue lobelia, several pink asters, nice clumps of feverfew, astilbe and Lady’s Mantle.      

It was certainly nothing to brag about, but it wasn’t  hopeless.  I"ve  now  now taken a dozen photos so I know what’s where, so when spring comes I will be able to think about color, texture, size and time of bloom. I must admit Ididn't enjoy writing this sad tale, and I suspect  you didn't have much fun reading it. Hopefully my next column will be better!                      

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Biggest Eating Treat of Summer

Is there any vegetable that is more delicious than fresh corn on the cob?  We’ve never grown  our own on Locust Hill.  We get the sweetest corn grown in the Northwest Corner from the Fords in exchange for letting them use our pastures for their heifers each summer and.cut, bale and take away our hay. 

Not many people grow enough corn to freeze a batch for winter eating.  It takes up too much space in a backyard vegetable garden.  Most farm stands, however, will give you an extremely reasonable price when you ask for a bushel for freezing, especially if you offer to pick it yourself.  And I’m about to describe to you the fastest, easiest way to freeze it. If we get a killer frost before you get around to getting your corn, just tuck this column away for next year. 

Speed is the secret  to producing sweet, melt-in-your-mouth winter corn – from plot to pot to freezer.  For this job a corn scraper is essential.  I recommend Burpee’s Corn Cutter and Creamer.

It first slits the kernels and then scrapes them off the cob.  But even this stainless steel beauty is useless without something to support it.   Below is the simple box that Hank made for the job.  It has a lip at the  bottom to overhang the kitchen counter, and a top that holds the cutter in place.  The box is high enough so that a bowl can be slipped in the open side to catch the cut corn. 

This may  look a little complicated,  but believe me, if you’re about to freeze 20 or more pints of cut corn without spending all day in a steamy kitchen, it’s worth it.  Which reminds me - make sure you get a large fan to help keep you cool while you're working.

Next you need a large pot and cover with a rack in the bottom and filled with an inch of boiling water in which to steam the corn.  Below are pictured two cob holders made of hardware cloth that  take 5 ears, 3 on the bottom, two on top. Improvise with coat hangers if you don’t have hardware cloth.

Fill the sink with cold water and ice cubes. Steam the first 5 ears for about 5 minutes, then dump them in the cold water and put the next 5 ears in the pot to steam.   When the cooked corn is cool, dry it on folded dish towels, then cut the kernels  - CAREFULLY!  as the cutter is sharp.  Fill the freezer bags and replace the bowl beneath the cutter (Very easy to forget!)

I know this all sounds pretty complicated, but once you’re into the rhythm, you’ll find that all these steps take about the same five minutes as the steaming process.  And believe me, the corn you’ve frozen for winter eating will be melt in your mouth delicious!

A word of warning.  Don’t put off the job of cleaning up no matter how tired you are.  Corn turns to glue if left to its own devices.  Washing tools, counters and floor right away will save lots of agony.     

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Terrible Tree Troubles

Arbor Day is celebrated in Connecticut on the last Friday in April, but to me it makes more sense to plant trees in the fall, not the spring.  Asking a new tender sapling to produce new leaves and possibly flowers when its most delicate roots, the ones that take in water, are often damaged in transplanting, must be tough. .  I think tree planting makes a lot more sense when done in September when all it  needs to do is establish itself and then settle down to sleep through the winter.

Locust Hill has lost all too many good trees in the past few years.  The first one to die was the weeping hemlock that Hank planted out beside  the sauna.  He chose it just for the kids as it made a perfect hiding place.  When the girls got too old to play in it, we found a beautiful flat rock  to put  in front of the hemlock so  we could sit on.  So could the dogs.  

Two years ago the weeping shrub  began looking sick, and there were funny looking white places on its branches.  The tree expert who came to take a look claimed it was doomed.  The Wooly Adelgid was the culprit that killed it.

The next tree to perish on Locust Hill was an even sadder catastrophe, the huge sugar maple that provided shade for the front terrace. When we moved here in 1963 the maple’s trunk had a diameter the size of a gallon jug, but it grew faster than today’s national debt.  We soon learned why -  our family of 5 was feeding the tree  daily because the primitive septic system  was directly below its roots.

Fortunately Hank’s grandmother, knowing we hadn’t a penny to spare, offered to pay to have a new septic system put in.  From then on the maple grew normally until five years ago, 2009, when it suddenly began to look sick.  Neither of the two excellent tree experts who came to check out the poor tree’s problem had no idea what it could be.  

Three years later I bought a silver maple to take its place.  Silver maples grow a lot faster than sugar maples and this one was no exception.   When I finally faced cutting down the poor dead sugar last fall,  the new little sapling had grown amazingly tall, thanks to my squirting “Spray and Grow” on it every year.  Hopefully  by next summer we will sit in the shade while we eat and admire the view.   

Our Carpathian Walnut, which gave us a bushel of delicious walnuts for almost 40 years was also sick, but we knew why – every limb had been drilled with holes by sapsuckers, so the tree no longer could produce nuts, Last fall  I had it cut down along with the sugar maple.  What a  lot of firewood  John and I stacked in the long shed with both those huge trees gone!

The apple tree  beside the pond will be the next to go.  It must be at least 100 years old.  Last spring when the limb supporting grandfather’s handsome swing broke off what was revealed was a trunk as empty as my memory when I try to remember a good friend’s name nowadays.   

Fortunately its apples were always dry and tasteless and had never been worth harvesting.  Each fall they fell onto the lawn  where I had to gather them up so I could mow. This spring its leaves looked as sick as a puppy that's eaten a pile of rotten fish.  

That ancient tree, however, had given us the perfect limb on which to hang Grandfather’s swing. With both the sugar maple and the walnut gone, there wasn’t a single tree near the house with an appropriate limb on which to put the swing, and I ended up hanging  it  from a beam in the long shed.

Now it’s time to figure out what new sapling I should plant in place of the apple tree.  I'd love a dogwood, but I don't think it would produce a sturdy enough limb.  Since I’ll be long gone by the time whatever I plant has a limb sturdy enough to support grandfather’s swing,  I think I must consult daughter Bridget who will inherit Locust Hill and get her thoughts on what to get. 

I hope the trees on your property are all thriving.  If so, be thankful!