Thursday, February 25, 2010

I’d like to introduce the words farmden and farmdener into the English language. I wonder if there are any other farmdeners out there. And just what is a farmden? It’s more than a garden, less than a farm. That’s my definition, but it also could be described as a site with more plants and/or land than one person can care for sanely. A gardener and garden gone wild, out of control.

You might sense that I speak from personal experience. I am. My garden started innocently enough: A 30 by 40 foot patch of vegetables, a few apple trees, some flowers, and lawn. That was 25 years ago, and in the intervening period, the lawn has grown smaller, the vegetable garden has doubled in size, and the fruit plantings have gone over the top.

Originally, I had less than acreage – 72 hundredths of an acre to be exact. But over the course of 15 years, I did manage to put my fingers onto almost every square foot of that non-acre. Squeezed into that area were 40 varieties of gooseberries, a dozen varieties of apples, a half dozen varieties of grapes, red currants, white currants, black currants, raspberries, mulberries: you get the picture. All that, in addition to my vegetables, flowers, and some shrubbery. But I was still not a farmdener, and my property was not a farmden.

!cid_29DBFBED-C888-4743-BC69-6D532DCE9D78@hvc_rrThat transition occurred with the purchase of a fertile acre-and-a-half field bordering the south boundary of my property. With that purchase, I expanded my plantings, rationalizing that because I write about gardening for magazines, for Associated Press, and on this blog, I should test and grow a lot of what I write about. So instead of 2 hardy kiwifruit vines such as any normal gardener might grow, I planted 20 vines of varying hardy kiwifruit vines of a few species and varieties. Instead of 2 pawpaw trees, à la normal gardener, I planted 20 pawpaw trees of varying species and varieties. And how about another dozen apple trees? And chestnuts, filberts, pine nuts (Pinus koreansis is hardy here in New York’s Hudson Valley). Again, you get the picture.

!cid_F44B9AB8-BFA5-4C93-A45C-AFBBFC778334@hvc_rrBut no, I wasn’t finished. There was always one more plant needing a home, one more piece of ground hungry for a plant. Why not create another vegetable garden; after all, I had just gotten married, that made another mouth to feed, and why buy vegetables when you have enough land to grow them? And what about winter? A greenhouse full of salad and cooking greens solved that problem, and provided figs in summer and early and late season cucumbers. I like crown imperial flowers and learned the quirks of propagating them – pack pieces of bulb scales in moist potting soil and subject them to a few months of warm temperatures, then a few weeks of cool temperatures, pot up, plant out. Soon I had not a crown imperial or two such as you might find in most gardens, but well over a dozen of them, and more still coming on.

You might imagine that, despite my plantings, my lawn still grew bigger with that increased acreage. Not so. Most of the acre and a half, except what was devoted to new plantings, became a hayfield that I mowed and helped feed my compost pile. A bit of rationality prompted me to graduate from scything to a small farm tractor for brush hogging that field. (Tennis elbow, the result of excessive scything, also helped with that decision.)

!cid_FD30B51B-F5A4-4849-826A-FDB358CBAB96@hvc_rrWhat I now had – and have – is a farmden. And I am a farmdener. A farmden is not something from which you can earn a living, although I have sold some excess pawpaws, Szukis American persimmons, and hardy kiwifruits, mostly for test marketing in my efforts to see whether these fruits are worth promoting for small farms. And my farmden is a great venue for workshops, as long as I point out that participants should pay attention to my plants, not the number of them, because my property is obviously the handiwork of a crazed gardener (or a sane farmdener?). “Don’t try this at home,” I tell participants right off the bat.

I do occasionally still garden. Right next to my terrace is a bed with tree peonies, potentiillas, clove currants, and Signet marigolds, all well-contained by the bricks of the terrace on one side and a low, moss-covered hypertufa wall on the other side. The bed is close to the house and the bed is small. Yesterday I noticed weeds starting to overstep their limit in the bed. I crouched down, started at one side of the bed, and gave it a thorough weeding, literally getting my hands on every square inch of soil. It was fun and it was quick.

!cid_08D61184-7FF0-42A3-92C7-807280DBDAD4@hvc_rrMost of my time, though, is spent farmdening. It’s very satisfying, even if it does get crazy sometimes, and it yields a cornucopia of very tasty and healthful fruits and vegetables, much of them planted with an eye to beauty as well as function. I have vowed not to plant anything more in the hayfield, in large part because it’s so pretty, the soft violet hue from midsummer’s monarda flowers grading over into a golden glow from late summer’s goldenrods. I also promised my daughter, when she was young and enthralled with Laura Ingalls Wilder, that we would leave most of the field as “prairie.” (At 21, my daughter no longer yearns for prairies, but I’m keeping my promise.)

I have taken some of the edge off the transition from gardening to farmdening with some help here on the farmden from an occasional volunteer and hired neighbor. Still, I am planning to keep the “den” in farmden.

Friday, February 19, 2010

You’d think that after living in the same place for over 25 years and every year planting new trees and shrubs that there would be nothing new for me to plant this year. Or, at least, no where to plant them. Well, t’ain’t so!

I’m now finalizing this year’s orders. Let’s see: Did I succumb to any of the enticements for new and wondrous plants mentioned in the slew of gardening magazines and nursery catalogues that appear almost daily in my mailbox?

David Austin roses, whose blooms have the look of yesteryear (pastel colors and blowsy form) and the pest-resistance of presentyear, are always a draw. (Photo at left is David Austin's 'Graham Stuart Thomas' in bloom in summer.) And m--m-m-m, the thought of picking fresh, ripe sweet cherries is also enticing. I’m going to order Compact Stella cherry tree. It’s a dwarf so I should be able find a home for it somewhere, and it’s self-pollinating, unusual for sweet cherries, so I’ll only need one tree.

I’ve always wanted to plant a magnolia, of which there are many newer and older varieties, but where could I plant it? Now that I think of it, I already have a magnolia, a sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) that I purchased on an impulse at a nursery a few years ago. The problem is that the plant still sits in the pot in which it came. Yes, it is hard to keep my wits about me as spring approaches, especially on sunny, unfrigid days. “I will not buy another magnolia, I will not buy another magnolia, I will not buy another magnolia, . . .”

Uh oh, another new variety of filbert from the breeding program at Oregon State University. This variety, Yamhill, is, like some of its recent predecessors, immune to the eastern filbert blight that has for so long made filbert growing east of the Rockies unfeasible. True, I do have five other varieties of filbert bushes, some immune and some resistant to the blight, which when they reach full production, will yield a lot more nuts than we can possibly eat. That photo, at left, shows catkins (male flowers) on one of my filbert bushes in winter.

Still, the filberts do make a nice, curving line of shrubs that draws your eye and footsteps along and out into the meadow. And how else will I know which filbert varieties are best to recommend to you all in a couple of years?


One new and wondrous plant that will definitely not show up in my garden is a blue rose. A blue rose, in case you didn’t know, is a very big event in gardening. Think about it: Did you ever see a blue rose? No, you didn’t.

This new rose now exists thanks to the wonders of genetic engineering. According to the developer, Suntory of Japan, Applause rose has a “bluish tinge reminiscent of the sky just after dawn and an elegant, alluring, fresh fragrance.”

Scientists were able to bestow this color to Applause by insertion a blue gene, such as the one responsible for the blue of delphiniums. The red pigment in roses still causes a problem in not letting the blue fully express itself, but now that the blue gene has been inserted, high hopes exist for even bluer roses in the future.

Call me provincial if you want, but I like red, pink, yellow, or white roses, especially when those colors are pastel rather than harsh. Blue roses seem cold to me.


Some trees and shrubs coming to my garden this year are going to be home-made, that is, created by me from seeds, cuttings, or grafts. To that end, I recently collected hackberry seeds as well as scions (for grafting) of persimmon, pear, and cornelian cherry, and packed them all away in either my refrigerator or an insulated box in my garage. I (we) will deal with them in a few weeks.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A reader, in telling me how much he enjoyed reading this “gardener’s notebook,” went on to say that he especially liked – perhaps he said “found interesting” – my failures. Well, here you are Alan: Looks like I’ve done in another rosemary plant. I went to water it and was presented with leaves that were a bit more needle-like than normal rosemary leaves, and drier. I soon realized I’d killed another rosemary plant.

Except for periodically dying, rosemaries generally have been ideal herbal houseplants for me. Each leaf packs a lot of flavor, so it’s a plant you can actually use freely in cooking without decimating it. It’s also decorative as well as culinary, whether grown as a sprawling bush or -- my choice – as a miniature tree. And it tolerates the dry, low-light conditions of heated homes in winter.

This last point, I think, has been responsible for my “rosemary death syndrome.” Those narrow, waxy leaves tolerate dry air, but the plant as a whole, my guess, needs plenty of water. Rosemary is not difficult to root from cuttings, so I’ve always had plenty of new plants to replace those I lost; my tack with current replacements is to make sure the soil in their pots is constantly moist. Already I’m amazed at how thirsty these plants really are.


Gardenias are not as easy to root from cuttings as are rosemary plants, so the gardenia I lost a couple of months ago did not have a replacement waiting in the wings. Nonetheless, I’m taking up the challenge and am determined to grow gardenia successfully.

The more I mull over that loss, the more I believe water – or lack of water – was also the problem with the gardenia. As a matter of fact, too much water or too little water is probably the most common problem with growing plants generally. One of the challenges in growing gardenia is that it is particularly sensitive to either excess or insufficient water; I believe I erred in the direction of insufficiency.

Okay, so now I have purchased a new gardenia, a small plant in a 3” pot. My plan is to add some extra peat moss (to hold moisture) and some extra perlite (to drain off excess water) to the potting soil for this plant. I also plan to water more frequently – that perlite will help any excess water run down and out of the pot.

And then, just to make sure the plant doesn’t dry out, I’m going to hook up an automatic, capillary watering contraption that’s been sitting on a shelf in my garage for years. This contraption is basically a porous, hollow spike, the pointed end of which gets pushed into the soil while its opposite, open end fits to a plastic tube the end of which sits in a jar of water. As the soil dries out, it sucks moisture out of the porous spike which, in turn, draws it in from the reservoir via the plastic tube. The whole setup isn’t particularly attractive, but I’m growing gardenia mostly for the fragrance of its blossoms, which can make you giddy whether they’re on the plant or floating in a bowl of water.


That dead gardenia did present an opportunity for another visit to Logee’s Greenhouses in Danielson, Connecticut. Why go all the way to Logee’s to replace a relatively common plant like a gardenia? Because they offer about a dozen varieties of gardenia, as well as quite a few jasmine varieties, oodles of begonias, and all sorts of other exotic and wondrous houseplants.

I opted for “Four Seasons” gardenia, which is said to bloom sporadically throughout the year. Each blossom packs a whollop of aroma so a constant supply of just a few blossoms is all I need.

Friday, February 5, 2010

A recent afternoon’s bright sunshine coaxed temperatures into the 40s and drove me to break a fundamental rule of the garden. I pruned, and that’s a no-no. Pruning is best delayed until at least after the coldest part of winter is over, ideally closer to the time when buds are ready to burst into growth in spring. But how could I resist going outside and doing something in the garden? I did rationalize that any pruning now would leave me that much less to do amidst the hubbub of spring gardening activities.

I wasn’t indiscriminate in trespassing this Rule of Gardening. The plants that I pruned were gooseberry bushes, very hardy plants that are unlikely to suffer any cold damage as a result of untimely pruning. Also, no need to wait, as is done with peaches, for growth to begin to see which branches have died back from winter cold; none ever do so on a gooseberry bush.

Enjoying the balmy weather without spring breathing down my back made for a very relaxed pruning session. I had plenty of time to pay attention to details and prune a little differently than in the past.

Gooseberries yield their fruits on stems that are 1-, 2-, and 3-years-old so the usual method of pruning is to cut away any stems more than 3-years-old and remove all but the six of the sturdiest 1-year-old stems. The pruned bush, then, is left with a half-dozen each of 1-, 2-, and 3-year old stems. Each year a bush is renewed as oldest stems are removed, and new grow kept vigorous and healthy as excess young stems are thinned out.

The gooseberry bushes always bear many more berries than we can eat, and their weight bows the branches to the ground. So this year I decided, after doing the usual pruning, as described above, to also prune each side branch on the older stems back to a couple of inches long. I’ll reap fewer berries, but those that remain should be larger and easier to harvest among the thorny stems.


Some of you readers might snub all this detail about – of all things – gooseberries. After all, who eats gooseberries these days? Who wants to eat gooseberries these days? To most people, a gooseberry is a small, green, tart berry suitable only for pies, jams, and fools (a dessert made by folding cooked, sweetened, sieved gooseberries into whipped cream).

If small, green, and tart is your idea of a gooseberry, you’ve never tasted a so-called dessert gooseberry. Dessert gooseberries are sweet and flavorful right off the bush; they are, as Edward Bunyard wrote almost a hundred years ago in The Anatomy of Dessert, “the fruit par excellence for ambulant consumption.” (He was from England, where gooseberries are more appreciated and known than here.)

Only certain gooseberry varieties warrant the label “dessert gooseberry,’ of which I grow about a dozen varieties. My favorites include Whitesmith, Hinonmakis Yellow, Poorman, Black Satin, Webster, Red jacket, and Captivator. Their sweet flavors carry wine-y overtones and reminiscences of plum or apricot. Some have soft skins, others firm skins that explode with the flavorful, sweet juice when you bite into them.


Not-so-balmy weather has turned me back indoors. But I’m now on a gardening roll, spurred on further by a box of seed packets that arrived in the mail.

Lettuce, mache, and celery from the greenhouse have been filling our salad bowls all winter. As these plants wane or go to seed, we’ll need more. So today I sowed seeds of Black-Seeded Simpson, Romaine, Buttercrunch, Blushed Butter Cos, and Majestic Red lettuces. Some I sprinkled into seed flats that can be kept warm for quick germination. Some I sowed right in the ground beds in the greenhouse; they’ll germinate more slowly but hold their quality longer than those that are pricked out from seed flats into “cells” and then into the garden.

The next warm day, I’ll grab my pruning shears and get back to the gooseberries.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Some people wanted to know where I'll be giving talks in the next few months. Here you are:

Feb. 6, 2010: Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, State College, PA,

Feb. 13, 2010: Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, Burlington, VT,

March 6, 2010: Mt. Cuba Center, Hockessin, DE,

March 7, 2010: Green Springs Gardens, Fairfax, VA,

April 17, 2010: Maine Garden Day, Lewiston, MA,

April 24, 2010: New Paltz Gardens for Nutrition, New Paltz, NY

April 30-May 2, 2010: Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival, Orlando, FL,

May 14, 2010: Brookside Gardens, Wheaton, MD,

May 25, 2010: Maryland Master Gardeners, College Park, MD,


Check me out on Facebook,

Monday, February 1, 2010

Mandevilla Crimson, the vine about which I wrote and raved a couple of months ago, has become a horticultural Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. Can this plant really be the same one that was compact and drenched, nonstop, in crimson, flowering funnels such a short while ago?

Winter light – that is, the lack of light -- has made all the difference. Neither a flower nor the inklings of a flower bud are to be seen anywhere on the plant. And from the once compact mass of foliage has sprung 3 and 4 foot long shoots that are reaching out and grabbing onto a nearby rosemary plant, a lamp, anything around which they can twine. Even the leaves have undergone a transformation, although not nearly as dramatic. They’re merely smaller.

Strengthening sun should, hopefully, bring my mandevilla back to its Dr. Jeckyll persona. But what to do about all those willowy shoots? I’d like to cut them back, but according to “manufacturers” directions: “These shoots in the spring and summer will provide the flower buds for the next season flowers so do not remove or cut back hard in the spring.” Hmmmm. The manufacturer also states, in apparent contradisciton, that the vine flowers “on every third leaf pair, measured from the base or from the previous flower.” So new growth can give rise to new flowers.

My plan is to let those long shoots enjoy themselves and keep growing and building up the plant’s energy. Then, when the sun is brighter, perhaps the first day of spring, I’ll lop them back and hope for flowers from “every third leaf pair.”

I’m not soured on mandevilla crimson, in spite of its dual personality. As compared with past mandevillas, this one’s leaves kept greener in winter and the plant, during the growing season, is more florific and compact.


Now that I’m looking more closely at my mandevilla, I do see another of its Mr. Hyde side: cottony cushion scale. Sure, it sounds sort of homey and looks soft and white. But it’s bad news.

Lurking within those soft, cottony exteriors are insects, ones who have inserted their proboscises into the stems, typically at the junctures where leaves meet stems. Through those proboscises, scale insects are sucking plant sap, the lifeblood of plants. Plants are weakened sometimes to the point of death. To make matters worse, the insects secrete a sticky honeydew which drips all over the place and then, to make matters even worse, becomes colonized by a fungus that makes the honeydew turn sooty black. To make matters worse still, that sooty covering over the leaves cuts down light and, hence, photosynthesis, which is how plants make their food. And as a final badness, that scale can spread to other plants.

Now I’m tempted to toss mandevilla Crimson into my compost pile. I won’t, though. I’ll start organically, attacking the scale mano-a-mano, rubbing it off by hand. Then, armed with a cotton swab dipped in alcohol, I’ll snuff out more of them. Finally, I may take the plant outside on some warmish day and spray it either with “light horticultural oil” or “insecticidal soap,” neither of which presents an environmental or health hazard. Most important is to keep up with these treatments because young crawlers and eggs continue to develop and lack that obvious, cottony baggage.

For starters, I am going to go ahead and lop back all those willowy stems. That will make the buggers easier to find and present less stem – and, hence, less buggers – to deal with in the first place.


Mandevilla crimson is not the first of my plants to ever get cottony cushion scale. I’ve had it on jasmine plants and the related armored scales, which look like brown pimples, have attacked my staghorn fern and citrus plants.

Midwinter is when scale insects start to gain steam, and then the race begins, the insects trying to multiply as I try to keep the plants healthy and minimize that sticky goo all over the place. Once the weather warms enough to put the plants outdoors, these insects pretty much disappear. Perhaps they don’t like the climate outdoors; perhaps plant sap isn’t as tasty to them come spring; perhaps natural predators go to work. Perhaps it’s a bit of all these things. What I do know is that the scale insects are no longer a problem – until next year at this time.