Friday, January 28, 2011

I probably shouldn’t admit this, but some plants suffer much neglect in my hands. My aloe, for example, has sometimes gone almost a whole year without a drop of water.

Hoya, also known as wax plant or Hindu rope plant, is another of my neglected plants. This plant is about 25 years old and has sat in the same pot in the same location for the past 15 years. The pot is only 3 inches square, dwarfed by the 3-foot-long “Hindu rope,” a single stem along which grow thick, green, involuted leaves. The hoya sits on a west-facing windowsill of a tower window in my house, and the lanky stem can drip down another 2 to 3 feet before it’s got to be shortened to keep from being bumped by anybody beneath it. One reason the plant gets watered so infrequently is because watering involves pulling out and climbing a ladder stairway to get to and gingerly water the relatively small pot.

Another reason for the neglect is because hoya is a succulent whose thick fleshy leaves store water. The plant is more likely to die from too much water than too little.

Although I occasionally glance admiringly at the stem tracing down the wall, there are time periods when hoya grabs my attention. That’s when it flowers. The flowers arise in sprays of about a dozen, pinkish, tubular blossoms, each looking as if has been sculpted from wax. Not only are these flowers pretty, but they also emit the most delicious aroma of chocolate.

I’m not sure when or why my hoya flowers. Failure to bloom can be attributed to, according to reliable sources, “over-watering, over fertilization, insufficient sunlight, or plant immaturity. “ Ha! My guess is that a period of consistent, but not excessive, watering following the dry spells would coax the plant to flower. Now might be the time to start watering because, perhaps in celebration of lengthening days, the plant has, after all these years, sprouted a new shoot.

I’ll go and water the hoya right this minute.
“You never miss the water till the well runs dry.” In the same vein, you -- or I, at least -- never miss the thermometer till it breaks. I never realized how tied I was to the temperature until the number boxes on my digital thermometer started reading “- - - - -.”

Thermometers have come a long way since the liquid-in-glass ones that served so well for so many years mounted outside so many kitchen windows or on porch posts. You had to get close to read them, and they picked up some heat from proximity to the house.

After that came indoor-outdoor ones, using the same principal but with two glass columns. The “outdoor” column is fed by a thin tube threaded through a small hole in a window frame and ending with a sensing bulb. These thermometers let you essentially get your eyes further from the sensing portion.

Then came digital versions of both types of liquid-in-glass thermometers. Digital thermometers are just the ticket for those of us who like to know if the temperature is 31.4° F. or 32.2° F. Not that the sensors of these thermometers were necessarily accurate to 0.1° F (as stated, sometimes, in the fine print), but they did give a feeling of exactitude.

Still, all these thermometers measure temperatures in or near the house, unless you mounted one on a post out in the garden and kept running out to check the temperature. Or, you had a liquid-in-glass thermometer that registered the minimum and maximum temperatures since the last reading. As you might guess, I have one, have had it for over 30 years, in fact. Two sliding, iron indicators are pushed by the expanding fluid, with one indicator staying where it is pushed to its high point, the other to its low point. High and low temperatures are indicated for the period since the sliders were last reset by being slid back with a magnet against the fluid. Very elegant and very accurate, but you still have to run out to the garden to read the present temperature.

Enter wireless, digital, minimum-maximum thermometers, the ultimate in temperature readiness. With this thermometer (which, as you might have again guessed, I own), I can read present and extreme temperatures from the warmth of my bedroom. Except when they stop working. Then you really miss the knowing the temperature to within a tenth of a degree.

Epilogue: Yes, I checked and changed the batteries. Customer support, last time I got through to them, tells me I have to use fresh batteries, not the rechargeable ones. And I have to take all the batteries out for 15 minutes. Then, while the outdoor and indoor sensors are 3 to 5 ft. apart, I have to first put in the outdoor sensor’s batteries, followed by the indoor sensor’s batteries, and let the sensors “communicate” for 20 minutes. Etc., etc. The thermometer still doesn’t work. Perhaps I should click my heals together three times. I bought a new, and, I hope, better one.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Pretty much the only “gardening” I’m doing now is thumbing through the seed catalogs arriving in dribs and drabs in my mailbox. Among the funnest of these catalogs, and strictly for the plant-crazed, is “The 2011 Ethnobotanical Catalog of Seeds,” which, until I checked, I always called Hudson’s Seed Catalog. The catalog originates in the Santa Cruz mountains of California (once home to Ken Kesey) but offers seed from all corners of the world. Only recently have they come online, at

I’ve ordered from this catalog for decades, each winter pleasurably and slowly wading through the almost 100 black-and-white pages of small print listings of botanical names and descriptions. For this first run through the catalog, I sit poised with red pen, ready to make a star next to any seed listing that looks particularly interesting. After I go through the whole catalog once, I’ll re-examine all those starred listings and select which seeds to actually order and grow.

Judging from what I’ve so far starred, I seem this year to be drawn to scented plants. Achlys triphylla, also known as vanilla-leaf or sweet-leaf, is one such plant: “Dense spikes of tiny flowers held above the trifoliate fan-shaped leaves. Moist woods from B.C. to California. The sweetly fragrant leaves were highly valued by settlers, who hung bunches in their houses. Sow 1/4" deep in rich woodland soil, and keep moist. Slow to germinate.”
Another is Adenophora lilifolia, also known as ladybells. This one is described as “sweet-scented light blue 1/2" wide bell-shaped nodding flowers borne profusely in summer. Very hardy perennial to 1 1/2 - 3 feet, with round, heart-shaped basal leaves. Eurasia. Cultivated in Japan for the thick, edible roots. Germinates in 2 weeks.” For only $2.50 a seed packet, oodles of each of these plants can be growing in and perfuming my backyard this summer.

It’s not just visions of fragrant, comely, or tasty plants that make this catalog fun to read. Berkheya purpurea is native to Africa, with a common name Zulu warrior. How many plants conjure up an image like that!? The plant seems to me less warrior-like, with flowers that are large, silvery-blue to lavender daisies with dark centers. Interesting, but I don’t need another daisy for now. Short quotes interspersed throughout the catalog set the tone and are food for further thought. Here’s one from Thomas Jefferson: “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Or, going back 17 centuries, to Aesop: “Any excuse will serve a tyrant.” Or, forward, to General Douglas MacArthur: “ If you win, you stand only to lose. War contains the germs of double suicide.” Or, to another American general, Dwight Eisenhower: “Things are more like they are today than they have ever been before.”

So far, I’ve only gotten as far as “D” in the seed listings. There’s still time.
Aren’t temperatures supposed to get colder and colder and colder until the end of this month, and then get warmer and warmer and warmer? Unfortunately for plant lovers here, that’s how temperatures generally trend in coastal regions, near large bodies of water, and in western Europe.

In my garden, the low was 6 degrees a couple of weeks ago and the high was 56 degrees a few days ago. Such fluctuations -- characteristic of a continental climate -- are not that uncommon over much of the continental U.S. If you don’t like winter, you welcome those balmy winter days; if you like winter and/or like plants, those balmy days make you shudder.

Plants that can take our cold weather like the weather to stay cold all winter. Each time temperatures warm, especially after we’ve had a spell of cool weather, these plants start to awaken slightly from their winter slumber. The closer to spring and the warmer the weather, the more they awaken. Problem is that the more awake a plant is, the more likely damage, even for a cold-hardy plant, from subsequent frigid weather.

All this makes a good case for growing native plants. They’re used to our mercurial weather and know better than to let a winter warm spell entice them out of their slumber.

However, many cultivated plants are not native. I like to grow fruits, and fits of warm weather in weeks to come are going to make me nervous about the apples, plums, hardy kiwis, and pears, all non-native and sometimes awakening early enough to be damaged by subsequent cold. The blueberries, pawpaws, persimmons, raspberries, and mulberries should be fine. Let’s hope for steadily cold weather and plenty of snow for the rest of winter.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The harvest has begun: I picked the first fruit of the season this week. Not only that, but it was the first fruit I harvested from the particular plant. The fruit was a Sunquat, planted in a pot a year and a half ago. It summers outdoors and winters indoors, basking in sunlight streaming through a south-facing window.

Not many people have heard of Sunquats. I hadn’t. Citrus plants hybridize freely and Sunquat is one of many citrus hybrids, this one a mating of kumquat (botanically Fortunella, rather than Citrus, but very closely related) and Meyer lemon. I happen to be a big fan of the tart flesh and spicy, sweet skins of kumquat fruits. I also happen to be a big fan of Meyer lemon, which is not a true lemon but is probably a hybrid of lemon and mandarin orange. Meyer lemons are juicy and somewhat sweet, with a flowery aroma. They also bear prolifically. As testimonial to their precocity, I once had a cutting that flowered soon after rooting, when it was only a few inches tall.

So what could be bad about combining the best of kumquat and Meyer lemon? A Sunquat! The skin was sour without picking up any of the spicy tang of a kumquat’s skin. The flesh was much less puckery than kumquat or lemon, but was uninteresting, just bland. Perhaps harvesting a bit underripe, before the skins turn full yellow, will put some pizazz in a Sunquat. If not, I’ll stick to Meyer lemons and kumquats, each on their own.
Beautiful. Right from the sky. A white blanket of “poor man’s manure.” That’s what gardeners and farmers have called snow.
In fact, snow does take some nitrogen from the air and bring it down to ground level for plant use in spring. Not that much, though. Just a few shovelfuls of real manure could supply the same amount of nitrogen as a blanket of snow.

Mostly, what I like about the 15 inch deep fluffy whiteness now on the ground is the way it insulates what’s beneath it. Fluctuating winter temperatures wreak havoc on plants, coaxing them awake and asleep and awake and asleep as air temperatures go up and down. Each time plants are awakened, they become more susceptible to subsequent cold, the whole problem exacerbated with borderline hardy plants. Anticipating cold weather and snow, last fall I laid the 10 foot long canes of my Doyle Thornless blackberries down on the ground. They’ve been thankfully swallowed beneath snow.
Hardy orange (Poncirus trifoliata) is another plant to benefit from snow cover. It’s not a citrus, but a close Citrus relative that is cold-hardy as far north as New Jersey. Still, I planted some seeds outdoors a few years ago and their roots survive winter cold. The tops die back but resprout each spring. The deeper this winter’s snow and the longer it stays deep, the more of the plants’ stems will survive till spring. Perhaps, helped along with global warming, enough of the above ground parts of the plants will survive to reward me one year with sweet-smelling blossoms and, less appealing, their very puckery fruits.
Last fall, I cut some stems from my black currants and grapes into 8 inch lengths. In the bare ground between the dwarf apple trees, I scratched some lines and pushed a straight-bladed shovel into the ground on that line. Levering the handle of the shovel opened up just enough space in which to shove one or two of those cut stems, distal ends up, right up to their topmost buds. Then I moved along the scratched line, pushed the shovel in again, shoved in more stems, and so on down each line. If all goes well, each of those stems should have grown into a good sized plant that I can dig up and transplant next autumn.
That is, unless alternating freezing and thawing of the soil heaves those stems up and out of the ground. I’ve seen it happen, a row of carefully inserted stems sitting on top of the ground by winter’s end.
Which is another reason I’m thankful for the snow. In addition to protecting plants from cold, the blanket modulates soil temperatures, keeping cold soil cold, which is how I’d like it to remain until spring. I could have -- should have -- thrown some fluffy, organic mulch, such as leaves or straw, over the stems to do the same thing. But I didn’t. I hope the snow keeps.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The garden is winding down so I’ll look into the freezer and see what I’ve got. Hmmmm. A couple of jars of frozen, small, yellow-orange berries. Sea berries! I forgot all about them. I’ve had the bushes for a few years and each year nibble a few of the tart berries. This year I decided to use the berries in earnest.

Native to Russia, China, and northern Europe, sea berries are relative newcomers to this part of the world. And even then, they’re often planted strictly as ornamental shrubs. Their silvery leaves make the perfect backdrop for their bright and abundant orange, yellow, or red berries. As a fruiting or ornamental plant, sea berry is easy to grow, needing only abundant sunlight and well drained soil. A (nonfruiting) male plant is needed to get fruit on nearby female plants; each male can sire up to 8 females.

Years ago someone sent me some sea berry juice, the flavor of which was something like very rich orange and passionfruit juices. Some people liken the flavor to pineapple; hence “Siberian pineapple,” another common name for the fruit.

The reason I only nibbled on sea berries up to this year is because harvesting the small berries can be a problem. They press closely to the stems, and the stems are armed with intimidating thorns. Someone suggested freezing the branches and then shaking off the frozen berries. That’s what I tried back in September, cutting berry-laden branches into foot long sections and and putting them in a large, plastic tub with a tightly fitting lid. Once everything was well frozen, I shook the tub with the lid still on. A lot. The berries fell off and settled to the bottom of the tub and after winnowing what was left in front of a fan outdoors, I had a couple of quarts of clean berries.

The fruit allegedly makes excellent sauces, syrups, and jellies; my plan was to replicate that delicious Siberian pineapple juice. After heating the berries in a saucepan with a bit of water, mashing them with a potato masher, and straining, I had 3 cups of a beautiful, but nose wrinkling, tart, juice. I added about a half a cup of water along with a half a cup of sugar, mixed well, and was ready to try out the juice on some dinner guests. Served before dinner in apéritif glasses, the juice was a hit. Everyone asked for more.


I next turned to the bowl of tawny stems and grains that’s been sitting on the kitchen table for a couple of months. That bowl represented the sum total of my wheat harvest, planted in spring into 3’ by 3’ of garden bed.
The cut stalks of wheat, with their fat heads of dry grain, had been hanging upside down from the kitchen ceiling up to a few weeks ago. The contents of the bowl -- chaff, grain, and bits of stalk -- represented the results of putting the stalks into a pillowcase and beating them up vigorously, and then removing long stems remaining. That was a couple of months ago.

Yesterday, as long as I had my winnowing fan set up outdoors for the sea berries, I thought I might as well also winnow the wheat grains. As with the sea berries, slowly pouring the grains and other debris in front of the fan sent most of the debris flying away, leaving with the crop, the grain in this case, settling into a waiting bowl below.

My crop was relatively paltry, about a half a cup of grain. This half a cup per 9 square feet translates to about 16 bushels per acre. Average wheat yields are 30 to 50 bushels per acre, with some farmers harvesting over 100 bushels per acre. I guess I’m not much of a wheat grower -- yet. I’ll try again next year, perhaps planting more densely or earlier.


With the shortest day of the year past, it’s time for hints of the sights and smells of spring -- indoors. Paperwhite narcissus, potted up back in November, is already blooming and perfuming the air. And I’ve brought up a jasmine plant (poet’s jasmine, Jasminium officinale) from the basement. That jasmine plant, along with a few others, was outdoors this past fall through a few light frosts, then has sat in front of a sunny window in my cool basement. The cool temperatures, perhaps also short days and occasionally dry soil will contribute to abundant bloom in weeks ahead. I’ll extend the bloom by bringing up a new jasmine plant every few weeks.