Friday, March 26, 2010

It’s time to prune trees and shrubs!! I will be holding a PRUNING WORKSHOP at my garden (in New York's Hudson Valley) on April 10th from 2-5:30 pm. Learn the tools of the trade, how plants respond to pruning, and watch Lee demonstrate pruning of apple trees, blueberry bushes, lilac bushes, and other plants. Limited space, so pre-registration is necessary. The cost is $35 per person with pre-registration before April 6th, $40 otherwise. Contact me for registration information.

You hear a lot of buzz these days about honeybees, mostly about how poorly they’re faring. No specific cause has yet been found for this so-called “colony collapse disorder.”

I heard a lot of buzz today from the bees themselves. My Arnold’s Promise variety of witch hazel is in all its visual and aromatic glory. As I approached the plant to better drink in its sight and smell, it was all a-buzz with the frenzied flitting about of myriad honeybees moving from flower to flower.

It’s nice to know that at least some honeybees are happy – and I take some credit for their well-being. By planting showy flowers, for instance. We find them pretty; bees crave them as a source for the nectar and the pollen they need to survive. Early blossoms, such as those on witch hazel, are especially welcome to bees after a winter of having to draw on their stored reserves of food.

I’m also very careful to avoid using pesticides, especially those toxic to honeybees. And where pesticides are needed, I‘m careful to keep them on target and to apply them when bees are not active.


Honeybees are much more valuable for their pollination services than for the honey and beeswax we sneak from them. Many crops – virtually all those with showy flowers – need the pollination services of bees in order to set seed or make fruits.

I once kept bees, so can attest to the fact that they make very interesting pets. Their social organization rivals that of any other creature. (Humans are not even in this running.) Each bee knows and does his or her job. The hive’s sole queen leaves the hive but once in her life to get fertilized by males, after which the latter, their genitals ripped from their bodies, die. Guard bees protect the entrance from interlopers.

When the weather is nice, workers spend their days seeking out and gathering nectar and pollen from flowers. A worker, upon finding a good source of nectar and pollen, returns to the hive and does a dance that communicates to other workers the location of that bounty. This bee “language” is so evolved that different varieties of bees have different “dialects.” For a fascinating description of the experiments that led to the discovery of those “bee dances,” take a look at the book The Dancing Bees by Karl Von Frisch, who, in 1973, received the Nobel Prize for his work with bees.


Looking at those ecstatic bees on my witch hazel bush, it struck me that perhaps what I was looking at were not, in fact, honeybees. Honeybees are, after all, on the decline and they’re not the only bees on the block. In fact, honeybees weren’t even “on the block” a few hundred years ago because they’re not native to North America.

North America has plenty of wild bees, though, almost 4000 species for them! Our wild bees – including, for example, carpenter bees, orchard mason bees, and hornfaced bees -- are very efficient pollinators, going outside to work during weather in which honeybees remain huddled in their hives. These native bees get up earlier in spring and earlier each day, and don’t need the calm weather (wind less than 15 mph) and warm temperatures (greater than 55 degrees F) demanded by honeybees. Native bees also are more gentle than honeybees, rarely stinging. They don’t, however, make honey or beeswax.

Unfortunately, native bee populations are also on the decline these days, due mostly to habitat destruction and pesticide poisoning. Some people build special nestboxes for these helpful insects, which require nothing more than tubes in which to lay eggs, anything from bundles of straws to wooden blocks into which holes have been drilled.

Whatever I’m doing that keeps those bees on my witchhazel happy will have similar effect whether the bees are honeybees or native bees. Because some native bees nest in the ground, our gardening practices can influence their well-being. The website details the effects of a number of gardening practices on native bees. Tillage, for example, can be detrimental, as are the pesticides copper sulfate, sulfur, and rotenone. Maintaining wild habitats is also important to their survival.

I went back outside for a closer look at my happy bees. They were honeybees.

Friday, March 19, 2010

It's time to prune here in New York's Hudson Valley, and I'll be holding a PRUNING WORKSHOP here in my garden on April 10th. Learn the tools of the trade, how plants respond to pruning, and watch demonstrations of pruning of apple trees, blueberry bushes, lilac bushes, and other plants. Limited space, so pre-registration is necessary. Anyone who is interested should contact me for more information.


Still, I’m hoping to make enough maple syrup to last until next year about this time. Four tapped trees should do it. It has to, because that’s how many spiles (taps) and buckets we own. This operation is nothing like what I came upon a couple of weeks ago cross-country skiing in the woods of northern Vermont. All of a sudden tubes had appeared in the pristine, white wilderness. Tubes everywhere! Baby blue plastic tubes, black plastic tubes, interlocking connectors, everything neatly wired into position at chest height and thoughtfully out of the way of any skiers enjoying the woods.

Processing the sap here at home is done quite differently from those commercial operations. Our low-tech approach is to merely add each day’s “catch” from the four buckets to a big stock pot sitting on the woodstove. The woodstove is stoked pretty much continuously this time of year, so the sap is always evaporating, with the added bonus of humidifying the house.

I see a few eyebrows going up. Sticky walls and ceiling are what comes to some minds upon the mention of cooking down maple sap indoors. Well, that’s usually myth. Sticky walls and ceiling only result when the sap is in an active boil and bubbles bursting on the surface of the liquid sent little droplets of sugar water into the air and onto walls and ceilings. But until the final stage of our sap-making, the sap is just slowly evaporating. The vapor given off by slowly evaporating, simmering, or boiling a solution of any sugar and water is nothing more than water vapor. That’s why the maple sugar becomes concentrated in the remaining liquid.

In those final stages of concentration, with much reduced liquid volume, the liquid can indeed reach an active boil. The pot of liquid announces that it’s nearing that stage by starting to gurgle like a baby, at which point it needs to be watched closely, mostly so that the syrup doesn’t get too concentrated or burn. The finish point is when the temperature of the liquid reaches about 219 degrees F.


Someone emailed me that, “The squirrels were chewing on the Norway maple last week and the sap was seen dripping down,” then went on to ask if that meant it was too late to prune. Perhaps the squirrels were enjoying some of the sweet sap. Yes, you can tap and boil into syrup the sap of all kinds of maples; I’ve tapped and made syrup from silver maple, red maple, boxelder, and, of course, sugar maple.

Getting back the pruning… It’s not at all too late. It’s fine to “dormant” prune any plants up until the time when they unfurl their leaves in spring.

Another good question might be: Why not just cut the Norway maple down to the ground? The trees are invasive and displacing our sugar maples, they have poor fall color, and they create lugubrious shade beneath which grass and much else can’t grow. Mostly, people keep these trees because they are already in place and full grown.


Despite a foot of snow on the ground, I’m still planning to scratch open a furrow and plant peas – the first outdoor planting of the season – on April 1st.

Given the white blanket, which may not be around by the time you read these words, some people might think me crazed for planting peas so soon. Then again, those people who insist on getting their peas in the ground before St. Patrick’s Day might think I’m dragging my heals.

Here are the facts: Peas grow best at cool temperatures, making early sowing a must. The seeds will sprout whenever the soil temperature is above 40 degrees F. But St. Patrick’s Day can’t be the universally best time to sow peas because different places experience different climates on that date. It’s probably too late in Florida, too early in Maine, and just right in Ireland.

So call me a fool if you like, but I’m still planning on an April Fools Day planting for my peas. I’ll wait a few more days if the ground is frozen or covered with snow. Just a few days though, because things move quickly this time of year.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Snow today – a perfect time to plant seeds outdoors. Yes, really!

Obviously, not just any seed can be sown in snow. The ground is still frozen solid so I can’t easily cover seeds with soil. And cold temperatures are going to rot most seeds before the weather warms enough for them to germinate and grow.
I’m planting poppy seeds. It does seem harsh to sow a flower whose seeds are hardly finer than dust and whose petals are as delicate as fairy shawls. But early sowing is a must, because poppy seedlings thrive during the cool, moist weather of early spring. Covering the seeds with soil? No problem: Poppy seeds sprout best left uncovered. And because poppies don’t transplant well, their seeds are best sown right where the flowers are going to grow.
I’ll be sowing annual poppies, whose petals and leaves are more delicate than those of Oriental poppies. Corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas) once dotted the grain fields of Europe with its blood red flowers. These flowers were immortalized in the poem Flander's Fields, symbolizing lives lost in World War I. On Memorial and Veteran's Day, red tissue-paper “corn poppies” are still distributed in memory of wars' victims. Shirley poppy is a kind of corn poppy that has white lines along the edges of its petals. Corn and Shirley poppies begin blooming shortly after spring-flowering bulbs have finished their show, and continue blooming through July.

California poppy (Eschscholtzis californica) was named in honor of Dr. Eschscholtz, a Russian ship surgeon who found these bright orange flowers blanketing California hillsides. California poppy is a perennial but in our harsh winters must me treated like an annual and sown yearly.
Each winter, it doesn’t seem possible that the dust-like seeds I sprinkle atop the ground’s chilly, white blanket could ever amount to anything. Each spring, I’m amazed to see myriad of ferny poppy leaves, then flowers.
The rest of my flowers get sown in seed flats in the warmth of the greenhouse, or directly in the ground outdoors once the weather warms. In the former category, and already sown, are delphinium, snapdragons, and pansies.
I could have waited and sown delphiniums seeds outdoors. By sowing this early, though, the plants should eke out at least a few blue blossoms this year – nothing as spectacular as next year’s and the following year’s blooms, but at least something. After 3 or 4 years, our summer heat will finally drain the life from the delphiniums and I’ll have to sow seeds anew.
The snaps and pansies germinate slowly and need a long period of time to reach flowering size. Fortunately, they enjoy the still cool temperatures in the greenhouse.
Aphids are beginning to enjoy the greenhouse now also. Thus far, their favorite plants are mustard greens and kale. A burst of water from the hose knocks many aphids off the plants, leaving the insects stunned and unable to recover.
My other tack with the aphids is to press ladybugs into service. Lately, the beloved ladybug has fallen somewhat into disrepute, specifically the Asian ladybug that was introduced for agricultural pest control in southern U.S. and spread as it found conditions here to its liking. Anyone with an older home having poorly sealed, south-facing windows is familiar with the masses of these beetles that inadvertently make their way indoors this time of year.
Enter the dustbuster. On warm, sunny days, I vacuum up the ladybugs, which dizzies them but otherwise does them little harm. In the cool of the evening, I release the ladies into the greenhouse where they’ll hopefully begin feasting on aphids.
Children, adults, teachers, gardeners -- anyone interested in learning more about ladybugs and helping to monitor the spread of native and introduced species should check out the website

Friday, March 5, 2010


It's that time of year: The growing season is just about upon us here in New York's Hudson Valley. This season I'm planning a series of gardening/farmdening workshops here in my garden/farmden. I invite anyone interested in keeping posted about these to contact me and I'll put you on my email list for notifications.


The end of February is a slow time of year in the barely heated greenhouse. I go in there to pick some fresh leaves for salads and the pickings are slim compared to the overflowing greenery that greeted me a couple of months ago. Still, by the time I’m heading back out the greenhouse door I have the makings of a fresh, green salad in my harvest basket.

Mâche, also known as corn salad or lamb’s lettuce, is what provides the bulk of these midwinter salads. Most people are hardly familiar with mâche, and usually inadvertently as a “baby green” in restaurant salads.

Mâche is a vegetable worth getting to know better. It’s not related to lettuce but looks like a small head of a loose leaf lettuce sporting dark green, spoon-shaped leaves. The first great thing about mâche is its cold-hardiness; even outdoors, it starts growing each time there’s the slightest hint of warm weather. The second great thing about mâche is that despite its ruggedness, the dainty leaves are always tender with a delicious, mild, floral flavor.

Mâche thrives best in cool weather; hot weather puts the brakes on seed germination and makes the plants go to seed. These “shortcomings” make it a perfect vegetable to sow in fall and grow through winter and on into early spring, especially in a greenhouse.

I haven’t planted mâche for years. Instead, I let plants go to seed when the weather warms in spring. The self-sown seeds then sprout all by themselves in the cool weather of later summer and provide good eating in fall, winter, and early spring, at which point the cycle repeats itself. My only job is to weed out excess plants so that mâche doesn’t take over the whole greenhouse or garden. That name “corn salad” comes from it’s being a weed in European grain fields. (In the Queen’s English, “corn” is the word for any grain.) Mâche is a welcome weed around here.


The sun is getting brighter in the sky day by day so it’s mostly lack of heat that’s holding back plant growth. Outdoors, there’s not much to do about a lack of heat. In the greenhouse, it’s time to turn up the thermostat a bit.

Thus far, I’ve let greenhouse temperatures drop no lower than 35 degrees F. During bright, sunny days, of course, temperatures push up into the 80s. A fan keeps temperatures from getting too high, which, with lows in the 30s, would wreak havoc with plant growth, at the very least causing lettuces – and mâche – to go to seed and lose quality too soon.

Adding just a few degrees at the bottom end of the temperature scale will spur growth in the newly sprouting lettuce, arugula, onion, and leek seedlings. This new minimum temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit strikes a congenial balance between plant growth and the cost and conservation of energy, propane in this case.


I’m not skimping on heat when it comes to germinating seeds. Seeds require more heat to sprout than seedlings need to grow. Too little heat and seeds either rot or sprout too slowly.

Fortunately, seeds need little or no light to sprout. Some people use the warmth atop their refrigerator for seed germination; the top of my refrigerator is not warm at all. Some people germinate their seeds at a warm spot in their house, such as near a heating duct; my home, heated mostly with wood, has no such oases.

Years ago I invested in a thermostatically controlled heating mat, made especially for gardening. The mat is in the greenhouse, so even if greenhouse temperatures drop to 40 degrees F., my seed flats sit with their bottoms soaking up 75 degree warmth from the mat below.