Sunday, March 31, 2013

Friday, March 29, 2013

Philahortica & Yet Another Giveaway!!

The High Mowing Seeds giveaway is over and the seeds are on their way to the winner; but let's have another giveaway! This time it's a copy of my newest book, Grow Fruit Naturally. I'll select randomly from all the comments offered by everyone who writes in as to what state they live in and what fruits they grow successfully and unsuccessfully, and what their favorite fruits are. The deadline for getting comments in will be Wednesday, April 3rd, at noon.

Philadelphia should not be called the “city of brotherly love.” No, I didn’t get mugged on a recent trip there. It’s just that more evident -- to me, at least -- is Philadelphia’s greenery. The city is oozing greenery, with over 10,000 acres of park land and hundreds of community gardens and small orchards right within city limits.

Weeping cherries, Bryn Mawr, PA
Philly’s more formal garden traditions harken back at least to the early 18th century. It was then, along the banks of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River, that John Bartram, America’s first botanist, planted a garden from which notable American plants were distributed across the Atlantic. John traveled with his son William throughout the colonies studying and collecting plants, including Franklinia, a rare species that the father and son team came upon in the Altamaha River valley in Georgia. They brought seeds back to their nursery, trees of which are the source of all Franklinias in existence today. Franklinias have never been seen again in the wild since the Bartram’s last sighting.
Stewartia monophylla at the Barnes Foundation, PA

But let’s get back to today’s city of horticultural love (Philahortica?). Trees seem to like it there. I’ve come upon majestic specimens of sycamores and weeping cherries, Korean mountain ash from which drooped fiery, orange fruits, and stewartia trees with sculptural, copper-red trunks. Last week, the weather there was warm yet the ground seemed to be covered with broad, thin expanses of lingering snow. No, not snow! Closer inspection revealed sweeps of pale blue crocus flowers just unfolding. This self-seeding, deer-resistant crocus species -- Crocus tommasinianus, with the appropriate common name of snow crocus -- seemed to be coming up everywhere.

During my three days in Philahortica, the plant that really blew me away was sarcococca, also known as sweet box. And how sweet it is. Walking down a sidewalk, I all of a sudden started sniffing the air like a dog. No flowers were in sight, but my nose brought me closer to a thick, green groundcover with tiny, cream-colored flowers tucked into the leaf axils. The aggregate effect of all those tiny flowers was a sweet scent barreling down from the bank of plants to the portion of sidewalk I was approaching. I have to admit that I was not at all familiar with the plant, having learned my plants in Wisconsin where Sarcococca and other evergreens are not cold-hardy, at least back when I lived there.

Stewartia japonica
Already I’ve sited, in my mind, a home here for Sarcococca. This evergreen plant enjoys partial shade with moist, well-drained soils that are rich in organic matter, which are the same conditions enjoyed by many plants in the heath family (Ericaceae). I have a whole bed of heath family plants -- including mountain laurel, rhododendron, lowbush blueberry, and lingonberry -- along the east and north sides of my home. Sarcococca will look right at home sharing the bed with these plants when tucked right up to the brick wall of my house.

Among the species of Sarcococca, the one I’ll be seeking out in the coming weeks is the botanical variety humilis of S. Hookerana. Sarcocca is borderline cold-hardy in my relatively cold garden, and the variety humilis is a bit more cold-hardy than digyna, another botanical variety of the species. The brick wall should offer extra heat in winter and protection from drying winter sun and wind.

The path to the front door runs right along that bed and if everything goes as planned, I and others will be enjoying the sweet, sarcococcal fragrance as we walk along the path in two March’s hence.
Witchhazel, here at the farmden

Not that there’s any lack of fragrance around here this time of year. Outside, near that front walkway, witchhazel is in full bloom. Indoors, jasmine is coming to the end of its bloom period but the fragrant orchid, Ondontoglossum pulchellum is still going strong. Gardenia flower buds are fattening up next to my desk and, back outdoors, a whole bed of hyacinths are pushing up through the soil. 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Write in your heirloom favorites soon . . . the giveaway (see below) will end Wednesday, March 27th at 1 pm.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A Giveaway, Dragons, Seedlings, and Aromas

I purchase vegetable and flower seeds from a handful of seed companies. All offer high quality seeds, organically grown when possible, and at reasonable prices. High Mowing Organic Seeds of Wolcott, VT is one of those companies. 

      And now for the giveaway: A "High Mowing" cap and their boxed set of seeds for heirloom vegetable lovers. The box includes packets from such old-time favorites as Brandywine tomato, Red Salad Bowl lettuce, Detroit Dark Red Beet, Red Russian Kale, and others. To enter this giveaway, in the "Comments" box below tell us about some of your favorite heirloom vegetables. Winner of both the hat and the box of seeds will be selected randomly and contacted for mailing by email.

        There must be a converse to the saying, “Be careful what you wish for . . . “ And if there is, I’ve realized it. I wrote, a couple of weeks ago, about the so-called hardy orange, Poncirus trifoliata, which, with warmer winters, now seems hardy in my garden. I’m looking forward to fragrant flowers and “oranges” that have a citrus-y smell even if they are too tart and bitter to eat.

Last time, I also mentioned one especially striking variety of hardy orange, Flying Dragon. This variety has the thorny, evergreen stems of the species, but the stems wriggle and squirm and twist every which way. It’s very ornamental, and also, like the species, will have fragrant flowers and orange fruits to come.

I saw a Flying Dragon sitting in a pot at a consulting job last week and mentioned my affection for the plant. “Take it,” I was told, “it’s an extra.” I did, and am now the proud owner of a 3 foot high Flying Dragon.

You can imagine how congested Flying Dragon could become, with with all the twisting stems and -- I forgot to mention -- thorns that curl backwards. Those ornamental assets made the pruning, which my new plant needed, all the more difficult. I hope, in years to come, that the saying I associate with this plant won’t become “Be careful what you wish for because it might come true.”

The march of vegetables is on its way. With decades of growing vegetables under my belt, I have a schedule for sowing seeds indoors, transplanting seedlings, and sowing seeds outdoors. It’s not a schedule writ in stone, though. Each year it gets tweaked as my experience grows, and to account for recent years’ earlier warming springs.

My schedule is applicable to other gardens with average date of the last killing frost in spring of mid-May. It’s even applicable to gardens elsewhere by merely shifting sowing and transplanting dates forward or backward by the same number of weeks they differ locally from the May 15th, last frost date at my farmden.

Here, then, is my schedule for sowing and planting some vegetables (after June 1, all plantings are outdoors):
•Feb. 1: onion, leek, and celery seeded indoors;
•Mar 1: broccoli, cabbage, kale, brussels sprouts, eggplant, and pepper seeded indoors;
•April 1: tomato seeded indoors; peas seeded outdoors;
•April 15: onion, leek, broccoli, cabbage, kale, and brussels sprouts seedlings transplanted outdoors; carrots, turnips, and beets seeded outdoors;
•May 1: cucumber and melon seeded indoors; celery seedlings transplanted outdoors;
•May 15: beans, squash, okra, and corn seeded outdoors;
•May 21: tomato, pepper, and eggplant seedlings transplanted outdoors;
•June 1: cucumber and melon seedlings transplanted outdoors; second seeding of corn;
•June 15: broccoli, cabbage, and kale seeded for autumn harvest; second seeding of cucumber and bush beans; third seeding of corn;
•July 1: second seeding of summer squash; fourth seeding of corn;
July 15: third seeding of bush beans.

The nice thing about having this schedule is that the weather no longer pushes me around. A warm, sunny day in the middle of April might tempt me to plant corn -- except if I look at my schedule. The year before last, the last spring frost was in early April, so corn could, in fact, have been planted earlier. Last year provided greater temptation with a spate of 70 degree temperatures in March. The mercury plummeted in mid-May, which would have snuffed out the corn sprouts.

I have a similar schedule for the autumn and winter garden. But no need to look at that right now. (A more detailed schedule for all sowings can be found in my book Weedless Gardening, available by clicking on the cover image at right.)

Shoots terminated in branching stems with round buds hinted at flowers to come and now, after a long, slow buildup, flowers have finally opened on my poet’s jasmine (Jasminium officinale). For many years this plant has disappointed me with no or paltry flowering, to the extent that I threatened to walk it to the compost pile if this year was a no-show. That threat was made easier because I now have another kind of “jasmine” (Cestrum nocturnum) that blooms more freely (with a different aroma).

The threat evidently was effective. At least that’s my only explanation because I can’t put my finger on exactly what I did differently this year. Sun, water, and fertilizer kept the plant growing well through summer and some thirst and a spell of exposure to near freezing temperatures in autumn were supposed to make for abundant blooms. Or so I’ve been told. But I’ve heard that and done all that for years.

Then again, last year I did pinch out the tips of growing shoots through summer, something I haven’t done previously. Perhaps that’s what brought on the better, but still hardly abundant, flowers.

So the plant gets pinched, and gets to live -- for at least another year.

Friday, March 15, 2013

What's New, Or Going to Be

Some white tomatoes, grown
years ago
Two or three people have already asked me, “Are you growing anything special this year?” Each time I had to stop and think: Am I? Then I  feel, yes, I should be growing something new each year. Then, on the other hand, I feel, what with the vagaries of the weather and pest problems, that it’s interesting enough just to grow every year what I’ve grown in previous years. Reinforcing that last thought is a quote from Charles Dudley Warner (My Summer in a Garden, 1870): “I have seen gardens which were all experiment, given over to every new thing, and which produced little or nothing to the owners, except the pleasure of expectation.”

I’ve surely paid my dues in the “experiment” department. I’ve grown garden huckleberries, an annual that, cooked with lemon and sugar, is alleged to rival blueberries for pie. False! Garden huckleberries are tasteless. The pie would taste like a lemon-and-sugar pie. I’ve grown white tomatoes, touted as being sweeter than red tomatoes. One taste made me realize how welcome is the refreshing tang of red tomatoes. And then there was celtuce, supposedly combining the leafy qualities of lettuce and crunchy stalk of celery in one plant. Not so! It tasted like bad celery and bad lettuce. Celtuce is essentially a lettuce going to seed, the seedstalk trying to stand-in for celery.

Okay, now that I think about it, I am growing some things that are sort of new this year. Normally I would shy away from planting apricots, even though biting into a tree-ripened apricot -- sweet, soft, and rich in flavor -- is a heavenly experience. But apricot trees have serious insect and disease problems, their early blossoms usually succumb to late spring frost, and our fluctuating winter temperatures increase disease susceptibility so that the trees die either quickly or slowly.

Still, I couldn’t resist, while perusing Cummins Nursery ( website and happening upon the variety Jerseycot, the most reliable apricot for apricot-unfriendly regions of the northeast. Planting an apricot tree may represent a 20 year cycle for me; about 20 years ago I finally gave up and cut down an apricot tree I had planted a few years earlier. (The wood is beautiful and I reincarnated it as a coat rack. I hope this year’s tree sees many productive years before becoming a coat rack also.)

Apricots, in my future -- I hope.
Another “new” plant for this year is honeyberry (Lonicera edulis), sometimes called edible blue honeysuckle. This is another plant I grew many years ago. It performed poorly because of the poor care I gave it which was mostly because of the poor flavor of the one berry I tasted. But honeyberry is a new fruit, in the same place, development-wise, as the apple might have been 2,000 years ago. New varieties have come down the pike and I’m ready to try these newbies.

A couple of other sort-of-new plants here are artichoke and citrus. The artichokes I planted last summer did nothing except grow leaves. I dug up the two plants, potted them, and have grown them through winter in sunny window. Age and last autumn’s exposure to cool temperature should get me some ‘chokes to eat this year. (Artichokes need a cold spell before they decide to make ‘chokes instead of just leaves.)

New citrus will expand my current collection. I’m deciding between Satsuma mandarin and Clementine which, in either case. will join the rest of the (citrus) family in pots here that winter indoors in sunny windows and summer outdoors in full sun.

I’ve gardened for decades, but with a mere 12 years of greenhouse growing under my belt, feel like a novice trying to keep the greenhouse green and productive all winter. The basic routine is to sow salad and cooking greens in late summer and autumn for late autumn, winter, and early spring harvest. Timing is key. Planted too early, some greens go to seed before winter even gets underway; planted too late, short days and cool temperatures don’t allow enough growth for reasonable harvest.

This year, all went smoothly, keeping our salad bowls amply filled right up until a couple of weeks ago. Here, for the record, is some of what worked well:
•Direct sown Green Fortune bok choy, Aug. 30th;
•Direct sown Oregon Giant spinach, Sept. 6th;
•Direct sown Runway arugula; Aug. 28th;
•Direct sown Rhapsody and other lettuces; Aug. 28th.

Lettuce sown in seed flats at the end of December and transplanted out in the greenhouse in mid-February is now big enough to contribute some leaves to salads and, in a few weeks, whole heads. I’ll round out those pickings with recent sowings of spinach, arugula, erba stella, and mustard greens in the greenhouse.

More record-keeping along with fine-tuning sowing times and what varieties to grow will make the greenhouse even more productive in years to come. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Springtime, In My Basement

Spring is here, in my basement. Allow me to set the scene. My basement is barely heated and I replaced what once was a south-facing Bilco door with a wooden frame supporting two clear polycarbonate panels. Plants that need light and tolerate or need a winter cold period, down to near freezing, have their wishes fulfilled out there in that old Bilco entranceway.

Temperatures are more moderate there than outdoors, generally warmer except later in spring when the basement’s mass of concrete keeps things cooler than hot, sunny days outdoors. Through winter, though, the non-frigid temperatures kept pots of Welsh onions, pansies, oregano, kumquat seedlings, hellebore, olive, pineapple guavas, and bay laurel green and happy. It’s  cool Mediterranean climate down there, in winter, at least.

As would be happening in parts of the Mediterranean, some of the plants in my basement feel spring in the air and are starting to grow; the most exciting of the plants down there are some ramps that I was gifted last spring and potted up. Ramps, sometimes called wild leeks, are a kind of wild onion much in demand in spring. They’re one of the first greens of spring, enthusiastically welcomed in with ramps festivals in some parts of the country.

I too became enthusiastic about ramps after tasting them last spring so, of course, I decided to try to grow them -- no easy proposition. Ramps grow wild on the leafy floor of hardwood forests, their green leaves appearing early in the season and for only a few weeks to feed the bulbs, after which they die back to the ground and flower stalks appear. Little is known about growing them.

My ramp bulbs have sprouted! Last week I wrote about onions and their sensitivity to photoperiod; long days make northern-types stop growing leaves and channel their energy into fattening up bulbs. The more leaves plants have before the critical photoperiod that triggers that changeover, the bigger the bulbs. Methinks: Why not apply the theory to growing ramps? By starting early, the bulbs have more time for leaf growth before whatever critical photoperiod brings it to a screeching stop. The bulbs also enjoy cool conditions, which should endure in the basement window for weeks and weeks. 

If my reasoning is sound, I could get even better growth by looking to more northerly locales for ramp bulbs or seeds for planting. Because ramps originating in those parts would have to begin growth later in spring, they might need to experience even longer days before leaf growth stops. Down here, then, they’d get extra growing time before those longer days arrested leaf growth.

Ramps, now sprouting
In fact, it is short nights rather than long days that trigger that halt in leaf growth. Under natural conditions, short days and long nights go hand in hand. I could change that by throwing a light-blocking blanket over the plants for a couple of hours at the beginning or end of the lengthening days, tricking the plants into thinking the days are still short enough to keep growing leaves.

I need to build up a stock of ramps, by bulb or by seed, to get enough plants to fool around with. Ramp seeds or bulbs are available mail order from

Sitting, waiting in darker areas of my basement away from the light are fig, pomegranate, mulberry, and che plants, also enjoying the Mediterranean winter. These plants lose their leaves for winter, and light generally isn’t needed by leafless, dormant plants. In contrast to my hopes for the ramps, I’m hoping for a late spring for these plants.

If fig and company get wind of spring in the air, their buds are apt to start swelling and then growing into new shoots. Which gives rise to two problems: First, that the plants then need light; and second, that the relatively wan indoor light leads to overly succulent shoots that will “burn” once plants are moved outdoors when the weather reliably warms. Most of these plants are in large pots and there just isn’t enough space in the Bilco opening for all them, even if light there was sufficient, which it isn’t.

My tack with these large, potted plants is to hold back growth as long as possible by keeping them on the dry side. And then, when outdoor temperatures warm up just a bit -- with lows in the mid twenties -- I’ll move them outside to, I hope, begin growth in synch with our spring temperatures. Of course, I can only do that if the plants have remained dormant when I move them out. And if temperatures plummet one or more nights, I’ll have to lug all the plants into the garage, keeping exposure to cold commensurate with growth stage of the plants.