Friday, May 28, 2010

For the last two nights (May 9th and 10th), if anyone had asked me, “How’s your garden,” I would have answered, “I’ve got everything covered.” Literally.

Temperatures were predicted to drop to or below freezing and I had to protect two beds each of tomato transplants and blossoming strawberries. Strawberries always blossom while there’s still chance of frost so, just like every year, I threw old sheets and blankets over the beds. As for the tomatoes: A few days of warm weather the previous week had made me jump the gun on the tomatoes, planting them out almost two weeks earlier than usual. So much for being the rational gardener.

But, as I said, I got them covered. Literally. I was not so irrational as to not plan ahead, and

right after planting I installed the same “tunnels” over the tomato row that protected endive and lettuce from cold late last autumn. The setup consists of wire hoops about five feet apart over which I drape floating row cover; clear plastic goes over the row cover, followed by another wire hoop over each of the lower ones. The upper hoops sandwich the row cover and clear plastic to keep them in place and allow me to slide them up for venting in sunny weather then down on chilly nights.

Most dramatic, though, and really getting things covered, is the heavy cloth that I draped temporarily over each tunnel. That cloth happens to be bright orange, leaving two eye-catching strips in the garden.

The nighttime lows dropped to 30 and 28 degrees. This morning I drew back the orange covers, slid up the plastic cover for ventilation on this sunny day, and peeked beneath the layer of row cover, which will remain in place to provide some extra warmth. The tomatoes looked fine.


And the winner for this year’s best worst weed will be, based on early performance . . . (drumroll) . . . hedge bindweed. It’s popping up out of the ground all over the place, at least in my yard. Well, not everywhere. It is wise enough to stay out of the vegetable beds, where it would not stand a chance against me, preferring, instead, the leaf or wood chip mulched ground beneath fruit trees and bushes.

Perhaps hedge bindweed is also making a grand appearance in your garden. Look for emerging vines that are so eager to grab hold of and twist around anything that neighboring sprouts work themselves airborne by twisting around each other for support. The plants are mostly vine at this point; what leaves unfold are shaped like arrowheads and 3 or 4 inches long.

Summer is when the plant is most obvious, even admired, and that’s for its funnel-shaped, white or pink flowers. They are very pretty and look like morning glories, just a little smaller. That resemblance is well-founded, because hedge bindweed is a close relative of morning glory.

Unfortunately, hedge bindweed parts ways with morning glory in being a perennial vine that spreads both by seeds and by fleshy rhizomes. A rhizome is an underground stem that can sprout to make a whole new plant, which is what happens when you chop up the ground trying to get rid of hedge bindweed.

My tack in controlling hedge bindweed is diligence: I keep an eye out for the young sprouts and whenever I see one I reach down and pull it out. Removing the greenery will eventually starve out the roots. This method worked well about 10 years ago, the last time some confluence of the previous growing season’s weather, winter weather, and who knows what else made hedge bindweed that year’s best worst weed.


Bamboo shoots are sprouting, even escaping beyond their allotted boundary, which is a heavy duty plastic barrier sunk 2 feet into the ground. Each shoot grows 6 inches a day in warm weather, something that they’ll do for the next month or so, until they reach a height of about 15 feet. Mostly, this rapid growth gladdens me, letting my bamboo patch fill in again after my drastic pruning of a couple of years ago. The escapees are a little frightening.

The smaller sprouts can be dealt with by being cut down, dug up, or just given a sharp kick, but the fatter sprouts . . . hmm . . . bamboo sprouts, bamboo shoots. Those sprouts must be edible. Peeling the papery sheath enclosing the sprout, then cutting off the tough lower portion as well as the tip portion, which consists of only layers of those papery sheaths, leaves a tender bright green shoot. Sliced into inch-long lengths, then steamed for a few minutes, the sprouts were tender with a distinctive taste that is good alone or mixed with asparagus, kale, Good King Henry, and other pickings from the spring garden.

Friday, May 21, 2010

With blossoms spent on forsythias, lilacs, fruit trees, and clove currants, spring’s flamboyant flower show had subsided – or so I thought. Pulling into my driveway, I was pleasantly startled by the profusion of orchid-like blossoms on the Chinese yellowhorn tree. And I let out an audible “Wow” as three fat, red blossoms, each the size of a dinner plate, stared back at me from my tree peony as I stepped onto my terrace.

Both plants originate in Asia. Both plants are easy to grow. Both plants have an unfortunate short bloom period which, if this heat keeps up, will be even shorter than usual. Fortunately, both plants also are attractive, though more sedately, even after their blossoms fade.

The tree peonies have such a weird growth habit. I had read that they were very slow to grow so was quite pleased, years ago, when each of the branches on my new plant extended its reach more than a foot by the end of its first growing season. Tree peony is a small shrub; at that rate mine would be full size within a very few years. Or so I imagined.

The tree peony still grows that much every year. But every year many stems also die back about a foot, more following cold winters. No matter, though, because every May giant silky, red flowers unfold from the remaining fat buds along the stem.

I originally planted Chinese yellowhorn not for its flowers but the fruits that follow the flowers. Each fruit is a dry capsule that later in summer starts to split open to reveal within a clutch of shiny, brown, macadamia-sized nuts. The edible nuts were billed as having macadamia-like flavor also. Not true. In fact, the nuts don’t even taste good to me.

Still, those blossoms make yellowhorn well worth growing. And after the blossoms fade, this small tree is adorned with shiny, lacy leaves. Much like the tree peony, this plant grows many new stems each year, and many of the stems die back, not necessarily from winter cold but because they’re seemingly deciduous. I tidied the tree up last week by pruning off all the dead stems.

In keeping with blossoms on other plants around the garden, the tree peony and yellowhorn blossoms have showed up almost two weeks earlier this year than in most previous years.


Gardening requires a lot of rational actions. You shouldn’t for instance, plant out tomatoes just because one day in April, or even a few days in April, are exceptionally warm. So I rely on calendar dates rather than daily weather for when to plant various seeds and transplants. I’ve garnered these dates learning how much cold plants tolerate and how warm temperatures develop, averaged over the years, in spring.

This year I may not be able to restrain myself. It’s hard to imagine that temperatures could – should, in fact – plummet below freezing at least one night sometime in the couple of weeks. I ignored that “should” and today moved houseplants outdoors and sowed seeds of sweet corn.

Why the rush? First of all, houseplants enjoy growing outdoors more than growing indoors. Outside, breezes rustling leaves and stems make for stronger, stockier growth and rain showering the leaves washes off from them a winter’s accumulation of dirt and grime. After a winter indoors, the plants do need to acclimate to these conditions, which is why they start their outdoor vacation on the terrace on the north side of the house, which blocks wind and, for part of the day, sunlight.

I also urged the plants outdoors because populations of aphid and scale insects were outgrowing the appetites of the ladybugs crawling up and down the stems. Outside, I can spritz the plants down to knock off pests and spray soap or summer oil to kill them without worrying about getting spray or oil on windows, walls, or furniture.

As for the sweet corn, kinky as it sounds, I planted early because I’m anxious to sink my teeth into a freshly picked ear.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Today, with a nod to my ancestors, I’m going to spread dark green flakes over all the vegetable beds and beneath the fruit trees and bushes. That nod is not to my ancestors that came here from Poland, Austria, or Argentina, not even further back into the reaches of humanity from the savannahs of Africa. No, I’m referencing my – all of our – ancestors that first crept or waddled forth from the seas.

The dark, green flakes are kelp, a kind of seaweed; if the sea nourished our flippered progenitors, I figure it might also provide something nutritive to today’s iPod-appendaged humans. Kelp is rich in a grand array of trace minerals, many of which are known and some of which may become known as necessary to maintain health. So I’m spreading this stuff on my soil where its goodness can work itself up into my edible plants and, hence, my diet.

Spreading kelp here may be akin to “hauling coals to Newcastle.” After all, the ground in my vegetable beds has been beefed up over the years by annual dressings of compost an inch or two thick. Into that compost went not only all waste from my gardens and kitchen, but also manure, wood chips, and leaves that I’ve imported. Which is to say that my soil probably is already replete with a rich array of nutrients for my plants and me.

Emblazoned on bags or boxes of commercial fertilizers, organic and not, are three prominent numbers (such as 10-10-10 or 5-10-5) indicating the amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium – NPK, for short -- they offer. Nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are macronutrients, needed in relatively large amounts by plants and humans. Kelp supplies little of those nutrients. Still, fish, humans, and everything in between, need much of what kelp has to offer. A mere one pound per hundred square feet should do the trick.


I’m spreading that kelp far and wide, and when I get to my pawpaw trees I stop to marvel at their blossoms (first open April 25th, which is at least a couple of weeks earlier than usual, and opening over a long period of time). Not that the blossoms would stop you in your tracks. They hang down from the bare branches like nothing more than dark blobs.

Looking a little closer, you see that they are dark, purple blobs. And then looking up into the downward hanging blossoms from below, you see that the petals brighten to a lurid purple. The center of the blossom is home to a ball of white, filamentous anthers that shimmy when the branch is shaken.

More than just appearance makes pawpaw blossoms interesting. For one thing, you won’t see any bees buzzing happily about. That’s because pawpaw blossoms are pollinated by carrion insects. The blossoms reputedly smell like rotting meat to attract those insects, although I don’t detect any aroma at all, good or bad, even sticking my nose right into the blossoms.

Pawpaw blossoms also have multiple ovaries. Depending on pollination, each blossom can give rise to a cluster of up to 9 fruits. And each fruit can be large, the size of a small mango.

The main attraction of pawpaw is the ripe fruits that follow successful pollination. (The fruits are what earned pawpaw a whole chapter in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden.) Although native, the fruits are not what you’d expect to find in this neck of the woods. The fruit – the whole plant, in fact – seems to have tropical aspirations. The leaves are large and lush. The fruit’s flesh is creamy and white like banana and has flavor that’s a mix of vanilla custard with mango, pineapple, banana, and avocado.


In one of my flower gardens, the battle has begun. This garden started as nothing more than some pink and some red bee balm that someone gave me that I planted along a small section of south-facing wall of my house.

Along with the bee balm, some bearded irises that came along for the ride, and stayed. How nice. So did dayflowers. Not nice because the have spread well beyond that bed.

This garden was never a bona fide flower garden with a well-defined edge; rather, it’s always been nothing more than some flowers I planted near a wall. So the space is shared with resident grasses and invading wild grape vines, both of which I occasionally weed out to some degree. Garlic chives also makes appearances. I weed it out ruthlessly.

Then someone gifted me a peony, which went in off to one side of the “garden.” I had a trellis of sorts along the other side, at the base of which I planted hops vines. Hops themselves can become weedy as they spread by underground runners.

The white, stucco wall and clumps of flowers always seemed to cry out for some tall, thin pastel-colored hollyhocks. I started those from seed summer and put in 4 plants a couple of weeks ago.

Thus far, the flower plants and weeds maintain congenial, attractive coexistence with just a little help for me. Every time I introduce something new, I wonder how the balance may tilt.

Friday, May 7, 2010

One thing that I like about gardening is that you get so much for your efforts; that said, it’s sometimes nice to get something for no effort. And that’s one thing I like about Good King Henry, a vegetable much like spinach.

I’ve grown Good King Henry, which few people know or grow, for over 20 years. I hardly grow it, though. It’s a perennial. I planted it from seed in a back corner of my garden and it’s come back reliably year after year. It’s a close relative of the weed lamb’s-quarters (both in genus Chenopodium) so I was afraid it might spread and threaten takeover. But it’s done nothing more than reach out a little here and there. The only care the planting has needed is every few years my digging out whatever plants grow too boldly errant.

More than “like spinach,” Good King Henry is close kin with spinach (Good King henry, spinach, and lamb’s-quarters are in the Goosefoot, or Chenopodiaceae, family). Good King Henry makes a tasty cooked, green leafy vegetable this time of year. Seed stalks poke up from the clumps of leaves and I’ve read, but never tried, of people cooking and eating those stalks like asparagus. Not that they would taste like asparagus, I expect, just that it’s another shoot to cook, just like asparagus.

One other thing that I especially like about Good King Henry is its name, both its common name and its botanical name: Chenopodium Bonus-Henricus.


About 50 feet from my south facing deck is a Norway spruce. That spruce could tower to 60 or 70 or more feet in height, blocking sunlight, and especially winter sunlight, from the deck and associated glass doors. But it doesn’t, even though that tree is at least 30 years old.

This Norway spruce, at the ripe old age of 30 plus years, remains a manageable 15 feet in height. It does so because every spring I shear back all its branches –no easy task, but one that has been made easier because of a few good tools.

First is my ladder, an orchard ladder with 3 legs that make it very stable. Next is a hedge shears, but not your ordinary hedge shears. This hedge shears (made by Remington) sits on the end of a pole to extend my reach by about 6 more feet. Shaping with the hedge shears gives the tree a fat, well-fed appearance. Done just as stems are putting forth new growth (now), shearing results in dense branching.

Still, occasional shoots escape me, especially near the difficult-to-reach top of the plant. Those shoots commonly thicken quickly and beyond the capabilities of the shear. Such shoots call for the next tool (also by Remington), a small electric chain saw, similarly on the end of a pole.

Some of those shoots are not easily accessible with the pole chain saw, in which case I get out the final tool, a pole saw, which is basically a hand pruning saw on the end of a pole. This Silky brand saw has a high quality, 3-edged blade sitting atop a pole that can extend as much as 12 feet.

Near the top of the tree, some mangling of branches occurs. No matter; no one can see them. My reminder to keep pruning that tree is my other Norway spruce, near the road in the front of my yard. That tree towers to about 70 feet in height.


There are black walnuts and then there are black walnuts. A lot of people neither know nor care about black walnuts. I value them for their dappled shade, their rich, brown wood, and the distinctive, delicious flavor of the nuts.

How nice that a tree so valued (by me and numerous others) grows all over the place. I could pick out a couple of dozen wild trees within a quarter-mile of my home. I’m lucky enough to have on my property 2 bearing trees from which I harvest the nuts.

But why write of black walnuts now, when the trees have hardly leafed out and the nuts are months into the future? Because I recently received from my friend Bill MacKentley (of St. Lawrence Nurseries in Potsdam, NY) some scions – young stems, that is – of named varieties of black walnut. Named varieties are selected for superior qualities as compared to the run-of-the-mill seedling trees that pop up here and there.

To make new trees of named varieties, they have to be cloned, by grafting in the case of black walnut. Squirrels have been planting black walnuts all over the place so I have plenty of rootstocks on which to graft those scions that Bill sent me. I used a simple whip graft to join rootstock to scion, then dug them up, put them in the greenhouse where the warmth will speed wound healing, and after a couple of weeks I’ll plant them back outside.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do with the dozen or so trees I made but if the grafts take and the trees thrive I’ll eventually be cracking out especially large pieces of tasty nutmeats from Centennial and Putney varieties of black walnut trees.


It’s not to late to start or improve your vegetable garden. I will be holding a workshop, VEGETABLE GARDENING 101, at my garden 2:30-5:30 pm on May 22, covering where, when, what, and how to plant, how to nurture the soil, timely harvest, and more. The cost is $35 paid before 5/18, $40 thereafter. Space is limited, so pre-registration is necessary. Email me for more information.