Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Legend & Lore of Holiday Plants

For many people, the upcoming holiday season is the most special time of year. It is a period somewhat set apart from daily living and reserved for families, friends and celebrations. Above all, it is a time rich with customs and rituals, where even our simplest holiday decorations, songs and stories are the product of complex legends and myths from numerous countries and religious traditions, curiously blended together, transformed and reinterpreted over thousands of years.

The decorative plants we associate with the holidays are an important part of this cultural evolution, with none more significant than the leaves and boughs of evergreens. Imagine a much earlier time, where as the winter solstice approached, a once bright and fertile world became cold and dark. Fields became barren and seemingly lifeless. As a means to offset this chilling mortal experience, many cultures used cut branches of evergreens to decorate their dwellings and serve as symbols of undying life and continuity. In fact, our popular evergreen wreaths are themselves important representations of this cyclical nature of time and the passage of seasons.

Today, we may “deck our halls with boughs of holly” because it is attractive or traditional, but it is among the most important evergreens used throughout history. For the ancient Romans, holly was sacred to the god Saturn, who is associated with time and agriculture. Romans celebrating their midwinter Saturnalia exuberantly employed garlands and wreaths of holly.

Druids appreciated the evergreen nature of holly in their midwinter observances, even to the point of recognizing a mythic Holly King, who served as lord of the waning year. In their culture, holly represented masculinity and steadfastness, and was paired with ivy, another evergreen, which was considered feminine — in part owing to misogynistic notions of it being clinging and requiring support, as the two plants were often found together in the wild. By combining the attributes of holly and ivy in their decorations, Druids believed they could ward off evil spirits.

Christian and pagan traditions combined in the legend of Gawain and the Green Knight, wherein the green knight arrives at King Arthur’s court at midwinter brandishing a holly branch. The green knight is beheaded, but survives as a dramatic symbol of resurrection. Moreover, the character is closely connected with ancient and medieval legends of the Green Man, yet another symbol of masculinity and vegetative regeneration, and also related to the Holly King.

Beyond its association with holly, ivy maintains its own significance thanks to the Greek myth of Cissos, a dancing girl whose tireless performance during a feast left her dead at the feet of Dionysus. Cissos was granted immortality by being transformed into the vining plant. Moreover, the Romans knew Dionysus as Bacchus, and ivy was popularly worn as a garland during their Bacchanals in the belief that it would stave off drunkenness.

There is no more complicated and widely used symbol than the Christmas tree. Some accounts attribute the first decorative tree to Nimrod, one of Noah’s wayward relations. Druids were known to decorate the Oak of Thor. And Romans probably included evergreen trees along with their other Saturnalia wreaths and garlands.

One of the earliest legends introducing an evergreen tree as a Christmas tree of sorts concerns St. Boniface in the eighth century who had an Oak of Thor cut down and replaced with an evergreen fir. During the Middle Ages, villagers performing mystery plays typically used fir trees decorated with apples to represent the tree in the Garden of Eden. Much later, Martin Luther is attributed with introducing the first lighted Christmas tree, allegedly inspired by seeing stars shining through the branches. The combination of lights and trees follows a convoluted path. Certainly, using lights during the holiday period owes much to the symbolism of a sun god, or the return of light and the rebirth of a dead world. Pagan traditions often involved bonfires and Yule logs, while Christians invoked the Star of Bethlehem. There are also associations connecting tree lighting with Hanukkah, the festival of lights.

The first written record of a Christmas tree places it in Germany in 1605. Later, Charlotte, George III's German wife, is credited with bringing the Christmas tree to England in the 1800s. Afterwards, Victoria and Albert's custom of erecting a Christmas tree in Windsor Castle, complete with cranberry garlands and gingerbread cookie ornaments, led to the widespread appeal of a lighted, decorated tree and traditions throughout Britain and America. The United States also owes much of its Christmas tree observances to the Northern European immigrants who brought their traditions to the New World.

Another popular evergreen with a dizzying pedigree is laurel. The laurel known and used in the classical Mediterranean world is Lauris nobilis, always associated with the golden-haired god Apollo. The connection with a sun god had strong appeal for Romans and Greeks busy with midwinter decorating. In northern Europe, branches of cherry laurel were used, also for its evergreen properties, although it is a different species. Adding to the horticultural confusion, Americans further use the term laurel to describe decorative evergreens of many other species, some of which are also called bay laurels or bayberry laurels — which itself is associated with the candleberries or waxberries (actually myrtles) used to scent candles. Once again, one tradition leads to another, from sun gods reflected in evergreens to popular holiday candles, fragrant symbols of light and nature.

Mistletoe enjoys a long and varied history. The “golden bough” of Aeneas was thought to be mistletoe plucked from an oak by the hero entering the underworld in yet another rebirth myth. The plant, sacred to the Druids, was used to ward off evil spells, cure illness, ensure fertility, bring good luck and serve as an antidote for poisons. Of course, it is most known for its role in kissing rituals. The Druids admired the plant’s mystical properties, as it was commonly found to grow on oak trees, also sacred. Despite no roots to sustain or support it, it remained evergreen. Norse legends attribute the plant’s white berries to the tears Frigga shed for her slain son, prior to his resurrection and her creation of a decidedly popular “good luck through kissing ritual.” This once again brings us to numerous layers of symbolism found in a single evergreen plant, ranging from resurrection myths to notions of fertility. Early Christians banned the use of mistletoe due to these associations, but the Victorians later gave the ritual another opportunity to adorn the holiday season.

Many other plants continue to play a diverse role in holiday celebrations. Some are ancient, like strewing fragrant branches of the evergreen rosemary upon the floor in winter; others are modern additions like the poinsettia, a Latin American native that plays a holiday role, mostly because of the red and green symbolism. Even purely decorative plants, such as paperwhite narcissus, while they simply provide fragrance and flowers in Occidental homes, have a brighter significance in Chinese dwellings: bulbs planted in midwinter serve as a harbinger of the New Year.

Across time and continents, these plants and many others have continued to play a significant role in world mythology and symbolism, bringing life and color and traces of understanding to both our rituals and our daily lives.

Copyright 2010, Joseph M. Keyser

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Living Christmas Trees Plant Memories

For many of us, Christmas wouldn’t be the same without a fragrant, fresh-cut Christmas tree in our home. And for a lucky few -- those with large yards and strong backs -- the holiday is an opportunity to celebrate with a living Christmas tree; a cheerful, green guest whose role in this holiday tradition is only matched by its future value in the landscape.

In the wilds of Baltimore County, Larry and Cheryl Nickol, my brother- and sister-in-law, have been decorating their dining room with various species of five-foot firs and spruces for a number of years, later planting them around their property as specimen trees to adorn their landscape. Moreover, they look warmly at the tradition as a way to plant memories.

However, before you go dashing through the snow to a tree farm or local nursery, there are a few important details you need to address. For example, do you have a suitable place to plant your tree? Many popular species, such as Colorado Blue Spruce or Balsam Fir, will reach 40 to 60 feet or more in height. They cannot be used as foundation plantings. Of course, even if you do not have a suitable planting site, you can donate your tree to a school, church, or even a public park.

Also, remember that even a modest five-to-six foot tree can weigh upwards of 150 pounds or more, depending on how moist the root ball is. Container grown trees are somewhat lighter and easier to move about and care for, and have a better chance of surviving transplanting, although they can be more significantly more costly.

When considering cost, keep in mind that purchasing a typical five-foot ball-and-burlap specimen from a rural tree farm might cost about 50 to 75 dollars, while container grown cultivars, such as “Fat Albert” and “Hoopsi” Blue Spruce, purchased from well-known local nurseries can run as high as 275 dollars.

Availability and suitability also need some reflection: not every garden center or tree farm will have a desired species in stock every year, and not every species is appropriate for the temperature extremes of our Piedmont region. A reliable nursery manager can help direct you toward the best possible options.

After acquiring your tree, you will want to attend to the following checklist to ensure your enjoyment of the tree for years to come.

Start by digging your planting hole right away, normally two-to-three times the diameter of the root ball and at the same depth. You will never get the hole dug once the soil freezes! Retain the soil you have removed to backfill the tree later on. It might be handy to actually store the soil in a dry, protected spot to prevent it from freezing.

Inspect the branches and needles for insects or egg masses and remove them by hand. Spray your tree with an antidessicant, such as Wilt-Pruf, to help conserve moisture while indoors, and later protect the newly transplanted tree outdoors. Moisten the root ball or container and keep it moist until and after you plant the tree.

Prepare your tree for temporary indoor life by placing it in an unheated garage or shed, or on a sheltered porch, at least for several days.

Now the fun begins! Place the root ball in a galvanized tub or wash basin to keep things neat and prevent water damage. Stabilize the tree upright with bricks or stones, or create a base with several inches of gravel, which will prevent the tree from sitting in water.
Position your tree in a cool room, out of direct sunlight, and away from heat sources such as vents, radiators, woodstoves, or fireplaces. My brother-in-law actually closes the vents in his dining room to keep it a bit cooler. Also, keep miniature lights to a minimum to avoid additional heat, or consider using the newer, super-efficient LED light strings.

Be sure to keep the root ball moist, but not wet. Drizzle moisture onto the roots periodically, or even place a layer of crushed ice atop the burlap wrapping material.

Timing is critical. Do not keep your tree indoors for more than one week, and four-to-five days is preferable. A longer visit might be enough to break dormancy and result in a loss of winter hardiness. If you set up your tree on Christmas Eve or thereabouts, get it back outdoors before you start popping corks on New Year’s Eve!

As before, condition your tree for outdoor living by keeping it in a sheltered, unheated area for several days. Afterwards, plant your tree as soon as possible, watering thoroughly, and mulch up to three inches deep with straw, leaves, or aged wood chips. You may need to stake your tree if it is planted in a windy location.

And now you’re done. You can begin a virtuous new year having already done a good deed for your landscape and your environment. Cheers!

Finally, for the less ambitious, there is an alternative to wrestling with large, heavy trees available at almost every local nursery. You will find compact Alberta Spruces in containers ranging in height from one-to-four feet, sometimes larger, and costing anywhere from ten to 80 dollars. These smaller specimens might be perfect for a sideboard or tabletop, especially as they seldom weigh more than 35-to-50 pounds, and stay between seven and 12 feet in maximum height. After gracing your home during the holidays, you can plant outdoors or even place in a decorative container at your front entrance.

Copyright 2010, Joseph M. Keyser

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Branches, Berries & Blooms for Winter

You can beat the blahs of a winter landscape by remembering the three B’s of off-season gardening: blooms, branches, and berries. Admittedly, there are only a handful of introduced plants, and even fewer native species, which bloom and provide colorful relief during the gray days of mid-winter, with the striking and noteworthy exception of witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), alternately called common, fall- or winter-blooming witch hazel.

Our native variety is a relatively slow-growing small tree or upright shrub which begins its horticultural display in autumn with yellow fall foliage which soon turns to orange and golden-brown, and proudly heralds the beginning of its late-season blooming period. After the leaves have fallen, clusters of small, soft-scented yellow flowers appear along the branches from October through December. Each spidery clump consists of four twisted, fringe-like petals not quite one-inch long. Interestingly, the lemon-yellow ribbons tend to fully unfurl on warm sunny days, when we are lucky enough to get them, and, like most of us, curl up into a more compact mass when the weather turns cold and threatening.

More than a dozen non-native witch hazel cultivars have been gaining in popularity among winter gardeners, with dramatic new flower colors ranging from ruby-red and copper, to burgundy and bright orange-yellow, and featuring significantly later blooming periods, even into February, and a stronger fragrance. These low-maintenance hybrids are typically crosses of Chinese and Japanese witch hazels, and include favorites like ‘Jelena,’ which combines brilliant fall foliage in November with an encore of coppery red blooms as late as February and March, and ‘Arnold Promise,’ a brilliant yellow late-blooming cultivar developed by the Arnold Arboretum.

For more year-round color, garden designers have long cherished the subtle and sometimes spectacular twigs and trunks of our native dogwood species. Leading the list is red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea formerly stolonifera), also aptly called red-twig dogwood. This fast-growing specimen is a cousin to the white flowering dogwood with which we are more familiar, and quickly forms attractive thickets ideal for screening or habitat plantings.

Although its white flowers and berries are popular among songbirds like vireos, finch, and pine warblers, they are somewhat dull in appearance, a deficit more than offset by its brilliant red twigs and reddish-green bark. After a snowfall, nothing stands out in a winter garden more than the vivid red stems which seem to shoot up from a pure field of snow. In addition, goldfinches have been known to favor this species for a nesting site; their bright feathers flitting among the branches will ornament both shrub and garden alike.

Another attractive option is the yellow-twig dogwood (‘Silver and Gold’), a cultivar of red osier, renowned for its green and white variegated foliage, good autumn color, and, above all, bright golden bark.

Silky dogwood (Cornus amomum) takes its name from the grayish hairs along younger branches and flower buds, and features reddish-purple twigs and darker mahogany-brown bark. Silky dogwood also presents lovely flat creamy-white clusters of flowers in the spring, followed by bluish clusters of fruit in late summer, often lasting through fall and possibly winter.

The final and perhaps most important components for a winter garden are berries. Berry-bearing small trees and shrubs add a surprising splash of color and seem to stand out equally well against either snow-covered garden beds or leaden winter skies. Of equal importance, berries support scores of migrating and over-wintering birds, some of which, like cardinals, woodpeckers and bluebirds, add their own element of lively color to a landscape.

Topping most lists is winterberry or “possum haw” (Ilex verticillata), a deciduous native holly with upright, spreading stems reaching up to ten feet in height. Clusters of white flowers appear in April through May, producing bright reddish-orange to deep red berries which last through the winter, avian appetites notwithstanding. Keep in mind that winterberry is dioecious, having male and female flowers on respective plants, and requiring at least one male shrub for every three to four female specimens.

Native viburnum species, such as Arrowwood or American cranberry (V. trilobum), provide attractive clusters of white flowers in spring, brilliant fall foliage, and berries ranging from bright red to bluish-black in fall through winter. The species also provide an important source of fruit to more than fifty species of songbirds in our area.

Both red and purple chokeberries (Aronia species) take their name from colorful fruits which offer brilliant red and scarlet foliage in autumn, followed by bright red or blackish-purple fruits throughout the winter. For best effect, it is generally recommended that chokeberries be planted in clusters for a natural, sprawling effect.

Sumacs are best known alongside roadways, but smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) makes for attractive massed plantings or “colonies” in home landscapes, like the chokeberries. Autumn foliar displays, similar to chokeberries, are replaced in winter by greenish-crimson fruit which can last into spring and are keen favorites of bluebirds, catbirds, robins, and mockingbirds.

These, of course, are only a sampling of the (mostly) native species which can be used to adorn a winter garden. There are also evergreens with variegated foliage, ornamental grasses featuring golden orange stems and graceful tufts of seedheads, and so much more. For an expanded tour of the subject turn to Rosemary Verey’s now-classic The Garden in Winter.

Copyright 2010, Joseph M. Keyser

Monday, December 06, 2010

The Amazing Amaryllis: Queen of Bulbs

In our previous posting, Big, Bloomin' Bulbs (Dec. 3, 2010), we examined a number of spring-flowering bulbs which are easily forced to bloom indoors to brighten our winter windowsills. While some of these bulbs can be successfully transplanted outdoors for future use in the garden, others proved to be too finicky to make a repeat appearance. A notable exception to this group of plants is the amaryllis, the largest, showiest, and longest-lasting bulb in the bunch.

The amaryllis is a tender bulb, meaning that it cannot be planted outdoors year-round. However, this so-called tender specimen has been known to produce flowers for up to 75 years with proper care. Even with modest attention it can easily bloom indoors from year to year, or can be repeatedly forced to bloom on cue by simply transplanting outdoors after blooming, and bringing the plant indoors before the first frost.

For quite some time, the amaryllis has been associated with winter blooming favorites such as poinsettias and paperwhites. Lately, though, the bulb has found a new horticultural role as upscale retailers have started packaging bulbs with names like ‘Royal Velvet’ in red-lacquered cachepots as Valentine’s Day gifts, or pink, salmon, and yellow varieties in ribbon-adorned baskets as Mother’s Day offerings.

Regardless of when you would like your bulb to burst into flower, the bulb is where it all begins. Look for firm, healthy bulbs, without any sign of mold or damage, which are at least two-and one-half inches in diameter. Only a large bulb will ensure blooming the first year; smaller bulbs may only produce disappointing foliage.

Next, plant the bulb in a pot several inches larger than the diameter of the bulb, normally a five to six inch pot with drainage holes will suffice, although larger bulbs may require pots up to eight inches across. Because an amaryllis tends to be top-heavy, with flower stalks sometimes exceeding two feet or more, it is advisable to use a heavy terracotta pot, filled with an inch or two of gravel, both for weight and drainage. Also, as a high quality bulb can produce one or two flower stalks, each boasting up to six large trumpet shaped blooms, be sure that there is a one-two inch space between the bulb and the edge of the pot for the possible future insertion of a wire support or stake.

For your planting media, many garden centers provide suitable mixes for bulbs, although a homemade blend of two parts loamy soil (or standard potting mix), two parts compost, and one part perlite will do nicely. Be sure to leave half to three-quarters of the bulb above the soil level to avoid getting water and soil inside the neck of the bulb itself.

After watering thoroughly at the beginning, allow the soil to become somewhat dry and keep the pot in a draft-free area out of direct sunlight. Do not water already moist soil, as that is the surest way to cause the bulb and roots to rot. Once the bulb sets forth its dramatic shoot, move the pot to a warm, sunny spot, resume regular watering and light fertilizing, and wait for the show to begin in about six to eight weeks. Upon flowering, remove the pot from direct sunlight to prolong the blooming period.

After the flowers have faded, cut the stalk down to just above the top of the bulb. Leaving the flower stalk intact will deplete the bulb’s energy reserves as the plant will begin seed production. And while it is possible, perhaps even fun, to try propagating amaryllis from seed, those seedlings seldom breed true to the variety you purchased, and it will take years before a large-enough bulb will be produced capable of blooming.

Leave the large, graceful foliage in place and treat the plant like any other sun-loving houseplant. At this point, you can decide whether you simply want another houseplant, which will flower with some success each year, or whether you want to produce a bulb suitable for forcing next winter or spring.

As a houseplant, simply keep the pot in a sunny spot, continue watering and lightly fertilizing. It is essential to keep the plant growing and thriving after blooming to help the bulb develop new energy stores for re-flowering the following year. However, after several months, usually by mid- to late-summer, it is advisable to stop watering and feeding the plant, allowing the foliage to turn yellow and wither. Cut off the spent leaves and allow the plant to rest in a cool, dark location for about eight to ten weeks. Once a new flower bud starts to emerge, you can return the pot to a sunny spot and wait for a repeat performance.

Another popular option is to sink the entire plant, pot and all, into a hole in your garden during the warmer weeks of May. Start in a sheltered location with dappled light, eventually moving the pot into full sun for the summer. Treat the amaryllis like any other prized landscape plant with respect to care and feeding. By late summer or early fall, the foliage will start to fade and die, indicating that the bulb is going into a rest phase.

Be sure to bring the pot indoors before the first frost, and do not water any further. As bulbs frequently grow about half an inch in diameter each year, you may need to consider removing the bulb, cleaning it with a dry cloth, and repotting it in a larger container. If not, try to gently remove the top several inches of potting soil and replace it, called topdressing, with a fresh soil mix.

Like the houseplant version, keep your amaryllis in a cool (not cold), dark location until you are ready to force it into new service. Count back six to eight weeks from your desired bloom date and start watering. Once the flower bud appears, you are ready to return your queen of bulbs to light and new life.

The Lore and Lure of Amaryllis

The Amaryllis, like all good plant names, has its origins in Greek mythology. As is often the case, a beautiful young maiden (or nymph) named Amaryllis, which is Greek for sparkling or twinkling, falls in love with a self-absorbed Adonis of a shepherd, who rejects her unless she can produce a truly unique flower (obviously the antiquarian version of a Metrosexual). Consulting the Oracle at Delphi, she is instructed to pierce her breast (or heart) with a golden arrow at the aloof shepherd’s door. She does so for 30 nights, until at last Amaryllis, perhaps dying, calls out to her would-be lover, who emerges to see that the maiden’s blood has given rise to the crimson-red flowers of this amazing new plant. There may or may not be a happy ending. Suffice it to say that today, these fabulous plants are available blood-free, even from neighborhood supermarkets and convenience stores.

Author's note: I would be remiss in not acknowledging that the above illustration is my wife, Dr. Linda Migl Keyser, with one of her now ancient, but prolific, bulbs.

Copyright 2010, Joseph M. Keyser

Friday, December 03, 2010

Big, Bloomin' Bulbs in Winter!

Coaxing spring-flowering bulbs to bloom during the winter is a popular trick for adding brilliant color to the home and a welcome boost to the spirit. Unfortunately, the trick does not work well for everyone, while even successful practitioners often look at the faded foliage and wonder what next?

The process of "forcing" bulbs simply means inducing plants to bloom ahead of schedule and out of their normal environment. This horticultural chicanery can be applied to almost any bulb, corm, or tuber, although the easiest subjects for beginners are generally paperwhite narcissus, fragrant hyacinth, large-flowering crocus, and amaryllis, the largest, showiest, and most versatile of the lot.

Other, slightly more difficult species include muscari, like grape hyacinths, colchicum, such as autumn crocus, snowdrops, freesia, and sweet-and- spicy Lily-of-the-valley.

Tulips and traditional garden daffodils are a bit more finicky, requiring better temperature control, brighter lighting, and so on, although many catalogs and gar- den centers will advertise some species more suitable for forcing, such as miniature hybrids that are more at home on windowsills.

Paperwhites (Narcissus tazetta) are especially popular, as they can be planted in either a light, porous soil mix or, more commonly, in shallow glass bowls or other attractive planters, using nothing more than a layer of water in clear or colored marbles, or pastel-tinted gravel, easily found at aquarium stores.

These narcissi are noted for their thin, delicate foliage and clusters of fragrant white flowers. Some indoor gardeners will plant clusters of five, seven, or more bulbs every two weeks or so to ensure an ongoing aromatic display throughout the holidays and late winter months.

Regrettably, these easy-to-grow paperwhites are native to the Mediterranean, and are not tolerant of our colder climate. Except for gardens in warmer zones from nine onward, the usual advice is to discard the bulbs. Personally, I would prefer taking a chance on planting them outdoors after the foliage has yellowed and died-back, rather than merely adding them to a compost pile. At any rate, the bulbs will have exhausted their energy reserves and cannot be saved for forcing again the following year, which is true of almost all forced bulbs.

On the other hand, you might try forcing a related narcissus species called Grand Soleil d'Or, which offers a deep yellow color with somewhat smaller clusters of blooms. These narcissi can be transplanted to your garden later in the fall and should provide a decent showing the following summer, improving each year thereafter.

The key to success with forced bulbs is keeping your cool - or, at least, keeping bulbs cool while they are rooting. And while there is a whole science to buying and storing bulbs in refrigerated conditions, any number of retailers offer "hardened- off" bulbs which have gone through the appropriate chilling process and are ready for forcing.

With these ready-to-go bulbs, you can select a number of planting options. Hyacinth or forcing jars are specially designed glass vessels appropriate for crocus, narcissus, or, naturally, hyacinths, which artfully support the entire bulb, allowing the roots to dip down into the water below. You can also employ a gravel medium for paperwhites, crocus, or colchicum, or plant them in a soil mix. For these and all other bulbs, use a shallow "bulb pan" with a loose potting medium of equal parts of soil, compost or peat moss, and vermiculite or perlite. Many bulb fanciers like to add a pinch of bone meal per bulb. A four-five inch pot works well for larger single bulbs like hyacinths, while a six-ten inch pot accommodates several large bulbs or a dozen smaller bulbs.

Keep species forced in water or set in gravel in a cool, dark room (ideally below 50 degrees F.) for at least several weeks, until the root system has become thoroughly established and the top shoot or stems start to elongate.

Soil-planted bulbs will also require cold storage at 35-48 degrees F. while roots are developing. Never allow bulbs to freeze, and keep the temperature below 55 degrees. The best locations are usually an unheated cellar, enclosed garage, insulated cold frame, or refrigerator. In a refrigerator, it is best to cover the pot with a plastic bag punched with several holes for ventilation. Keep the planting medium moderately moist. The length of chilling time required depends on the species, but usually averages 12-16 weeks. The longer the bulbs remain cool, the taller and fuller their flowers will be.

A fundamental mistake in forcing bulbs is skimping on the cold treatment. Often if bulbs fail to bloom, it is an indicator that the retailer did not allow the bulbs to remain dormant long enough, the bulbs were stored at too high a temperature, or the forcing temperature was too high.

After the bulbs have been chilled appropriately, move them into a somewhat warmer room (50-60 degrees F.) with indirect light for a week or so, until shoots or stems elongate and the buds begin to swell. It is now safe to move the pot into a bright window at normal indoor temperatures.

To keep the blooms for the longest possible period of time, it helps to move the pot into a cooler room in the evening and avoid direct sunlight.

After your bulbs have finished blooming, cut off the flower stalk above the base, but not the leaves! Treat your forced bulbs like a typical indoor plant, with bright light, periodic watering and fertilizing, all of which will help the bulb renew its energy stores for future growth and blooming.

Do not remove the foliage as it begins to yellow and wither, but do reduce watering significantly until all of the leaves have died back. At that point, as your bulbs enter their dormant phase, you should allow the soil to completely dry out, and either save the bulbs in their pots or, especially in the case of water-forced species, remove the bulbs or corms, gently rubbing them clean with a dry cloth, and store them in a cool, dry, and dark place in a mesh bag or paper bag, keeping a vigilant eye out for mold.

In the fall, these bulbs can be planted in your garden. Pay attention to required planting depths. Bulbs cultured in soil generally fare better than those in forcing jars or gravel, but within one, two, or more seasons, your bulbs will return to full bloom in their new, natural outdoor environment.

Copyright 2010, Joseph M. Keyser

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Landscaping to Save Energy (Winter Edition)

Homeowners across the colder portions of the country are about to find themselves yet again being uncomfortably squeezed between cold temperatures and increasingly higher natural gas and energy prices. In fact, depending on the size of the home, residents can expect to spend between two to three times as much on basic heating costs, if not more. Not surprisingly, in many a home chilled fingers are turning down the settings on thermostats and caulk guns and insulation kits are eagerly being snatched off retail shelves.

All of which are virtuous actions for indoor energy conservation. But there are some long-term and attractive landscaping solutions which can provide effective winter climate control by deflecting cold winds and drafts, while providing indoor comfort and increasing property values.

It is important to note that for most homes, almost one-third of all heat loss is due to cold winds, either through conduction, with heat simply “carried off” by marauding winds, or through infiltration, with cold drafts entering through and around cracks and improperly sealed windows and doors.

Of course, it is too late for any plantings this weekend to help your current season’s heating bill, but it is not too late to start budgeting and planning, either for the spring or next fall. Some landscaping choices, like foundation plantings, will make a difference almost immediately, while others, like windbreaks, might take a number of years before their full value is realized. But any and all plantings will certainly boost property values and aesthetic quality.

Moreover, your planting scheme need not be massive. While establishing an effective windbreak may take a substantial number of trees, computer modeling by the U.S. Department of Energy has found that just three well-placed trees, including a deciduous tree for shading the southern side of a house, can save the average household 100-250 dollars in annual heating and cooling costs. Overall, combining trees and shrubs can save from ten to 30 percent on winter fuel consumption, depending on how well insulated the home is already.

Foundation plantings are undoubtedly the easiest and most satisfying landscaping elements in your palette. Typically, you are looking to establish a continuous line of evergreens extending along the length of the foundation and around corners, approximately five feet out from the house. This living wall of vegetation will create a dead air space of slow-moving or still air between the shrubs and the house, effectively establishing an insulating layer which will reduce convective heat loss and infiltration.

Never allow the plants to grow much closer to the house than five feet. The dead air space needs to be of sufficient size to work, and the extra distance will help to prevent potential problems with mildew, insect pests, and humidity, which might lead to fungal diseases.

Visually, you will want to select different types of dense evergreens for your planting scheme, with varied heights, shapes, leaf textures and colors. Planting a simple row of junipers, for example, all growing at the same height, is both boring and impractical. Shrubs with different heights provide a more effective wind barrier, while a mixture of foliar colors and forms is more appealing to the eye. Of equal significance, using the same species repeatedly increases the likelihood that a plant disease could spread from one shrub to another, even to the extent of wiping out the entire planting.

Windbreaks are certainly the most effective components in cutting winter heat loss. A mature windbreak, normally comprised of several rows of tall evergreens, can reduce wind velocity by up to 50 percent, and otherwise deflect or channel wind movement away from the house.

Unfortunately, in many urban areas, there may not be sufficient space for a fully developed windbreak, although new housing developments, especially with larger lots, are prime candidates. Also, while planting a single row of evergreens can provide some appreciable windbreak benefits, the textbook windbreak requires two or three rows of trees, planted in an “L” or “U” shape on the north and northwest corners of the home. That can mean a sizable number of trees. Further, starting with cost-effective container-grown stock, it can take up to ten years or more before the trees will begin to pay for themselves, save for their aesthetic and environmental benefits.

However, few of us strive for textbook perfection, anyway. Even an incomplete or immature windbreak can start to deflect some wind movement. Also, while evergreen trees provide the greatest wind reduction, you can incorporate existing deciduous trees, fences, and walls on your property into a windbreak by adding additional evergreen trees and shrubs.

For the truly ambitious, an efficient windbreak should be about as tall as the house itself, and planted at a distance of one to three times the height of the trees away from the house. Where space permits, it is recommended to start the windbreak planting 50 feet beyond each windward corner of the house. The greatest impact of the windbreak will be on an area within approximately five times the height of the trees, although wind velocities are reduced for a distance up to ten times the height of the windbreak.

Depending on the mature diameter of the selected trees, space each evergreen between six and eight feet apart. If you can plant multiple rows, for maximum impact, stagger each of the trees in alternate rows, spacing each row 12-20 feet apart.

As with the foundation plantings, select a variety of low-branching evergreens for your windbreak, especially with respect to height and species, which will prevent disease outbreaks and ensure some wind penetration. Avoid growing a completely solid wall of evergreens, which can potentially create a vacuum effect on the protected side of the windbreak, thereby reducing its effectiveness.

With large scale windbreaks, it might be advisable to start with some fast growing species, such as White pine and Loblolly pine, and later interplant them with medium growth-rate species, such as Eastern red cedar, American holly, and Common Juniper. Fast-growing specimens will yield results more quickly, although they will also lose some of their lower branches. Your next series of plantings, whether interspersed with the first or established as a second row, will fill in any gaps.

Finally, windbreaks are investments in the future. They will eventually provide valuable screening for privacy, energy savings, and, if native species are selected, abundant benefits for wildlife. However, you should not try this approach on the southern side of your home, especially where the evergreens might block sunlight from providing passive solar heating in the winter.

Copyright 2010, Joseph M. Keyser

Planting Suggestions

Whether developing windbreaks or foundation plantings, the following list of trees and shrubs concentrates on native species, which are far preferable to exotic species which are not necessarily well-adapted to this area, and provide little or no benefit to wildlife. For example, instead of planting Leyland Cyprus, substitute Eastern red cedar, whose berries help feed birds during the winter, and whose aromatic bark is a favorite nest building material for cardinals.


Windbreak Trees (mature height)

American Holly 30-50'
Common Juniper 5-30'
Eastern Hemlock 60-70'
Eastern Red Cedar 50-75'
Eastern Arborvitae 50-75'
Loblolly Pine 90'
Pitch Pine 50-60'
Rosebay Rhododendron 20-35'
Shortleaf Pine 100'
Virginia Pine 50-80'
White Pine 75-100'

Foundation Shrubs

Bearberry (Arctostaphylos) 4-20'
Common Juniper (pruned back) 3-30'
Compact Oregon Grape Holly 2-3'
Cotoneaster 3-15'
Inkberry Holly 4-6'
Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia) 7-15'
Northern Bayberry 4-8'
Southern Bayberry/Wax Myrtle 6-12'
Sweetbay Magnolia (semi-evergreen) 12-20'
Wild Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) 3-9'

Monday, November 29, 2010

Sharing Your Holidays With Wildlife

However you prepare to decorate for the upcoming holiday season, you might want to expand your spirit of giving to include your feathered and furred neighbors. You will find that creating colorful, edible outdoor ornaments is a fun, imaginative, and rewarding activity that will bring your family closer together, and may launch a wonderful new tradition.

An increasingly popular trend is to get double-duty out of one’s decorations. For example, make garlands for your indoor Christmas tree using dried fruits and berries and later decorate an outdoor tree with that same garland. You may then move a cut Christmas tree with such garlands outdoors after the holidays (after removing lights and other ornaments), leaving it near a window where the whole family can watch the birds and other critters enjoy the feast.

Some of the more popular garlands are made from cranberries, slices of dried apricots, oranges, apples, and pears, raw peanuts, and popcorn. Use carpet thread, heavy twine, or even waxed dental floss and a strong needle, such as those used for needlepoint or tapestry work, and either string a garland of cranberries or popcorn by itself, or create a multicolored treat by alternating a mixture of berries and dried fruits. Popcorn garlands should be salt and shortening-free. However, as the popcorn often splits in the process, you may prefer to use in-the-shell peanuts instead. Never use clear fishing line, which is difficult for wildlife to see and which might ensnare an unwitting visitor.

The same principle can be applied to wreathes, swags, and garlands for railings and doorways. Begin by using grapevines or fresh-cut evergreens, like pine and cedar, wired together to form a swag or wreath., into which you can interweave sprays of white proso millet and elderberry, dried seedhead clusters from sumac, sorghum, purple coneflower, and Rudbeckia, as well as a cornucopia of dried fruits, rose hips, berries, and nuts. You can also purchase prefabricated straw wreaths or evergreen wreaths and garland to achieve the same effect with a bit less effort.

Doubling the fun with indoor/outdoor decorations has caught on so well that a number of upscale retailers like Smith & Hawken and Gardener’s Supply Company now offer their own festive versions of homemade swags, wreathes, bouquets, and centerpieces, including bouquet refills to keep birds coming back.

Of course, if you find the idea of festooning your formal parlor with popcorn somewhat unappetizing, you can always designate an outdoor Yuletide Tree for your nature-friendly efforts. You can certainly use any of the above notions and augment them with additional treats, perhaps fresh fruit garlands of grapes, pieces of orange and apple, blueberries, golden raisins, and so forth, or simply turn to the pinecone, the most popular and foolproof wildlife ornament of all.

Start by collecting large pine cones, such as those from loblolly or longleaf pines, and deftly cover them with peanut butter – the crunchier the better. Let kids use their little fingers to reach into all the tight spots. Roll the pine cones in a commercial mix of bird seed, or blend your own using black oil sunflower seeds and millet. Use red twine or yarn to hang the ornaments from the bare branches of deciduous trees like dogwoods, or secure to any of the pines and spruces around your yard. Be sure to place the cones in trees you can easily watch.

Your pinecone treats can be jazzed up by mixing peanut butter with suet or substituting suet altogether. You can also add raisins, cranberries, and minced pieces of unsalted nuts and dried fruits to your seed mix to make the ornaments more colorful and more appealing for birds.
Additional ornaments can be made from slices of stale bread by using cookie cutters to cut out fanciful holiday shapes like gingerbread men, stars, evergreen trees, Christmas stockings, and even Santa himself! Let the bread harden overnight, coat with peanut butter or suet, and adorn with your seed mixture. Bagels, sliced in half, and similarly spread with peanut butter and seeds, may be hung outdoors on your Hanukkah tree.

Naturally, if you plan to spend the better part of a month tracking down hard-to-find Hanna Montana paraphernalia, you might not want to invest time in homespun arts-and-crafts. Fear not! You will quickly find wildlife and gardening-oriented merchants offering a constellation of red and green star-shaped suet feeders, suet and seed encrusted holiday bells, stars, and Christmas tree shapes. There are commercial peanut bags, which lack the panache of the traditional red stocking that St. Nick favors, and egg cartons filled with a dozen assorted songbird “eggs,” as well as pricey edible bird “cottages.”

Lastly, if the ground has not frozen over, you can always give one of the best gifts of all to nature by planting a native tree or shrub to provide nuts or berries to a wide variety of local wildlife for many years to come. Then you may hang a peanut butter pinecone on it after you’re done.

Copyright 2010, Joseph M. Keyser

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Roots (and Tubers) of the Thanksgiving Tradition

Thanksgiving is fast approaching, a holiday full of swirling memories and preparations, like so many colorful autumn leaves. It’s a celebration of family and food and delightful traditions. And it can be a reminder that our traditions are actually anything but traditional.

I was rather young when I first learned that my family’s traditional Thanksgiving dinner was not the universal norm. We dined on turkey and stuffing, potatoes, gravy, sweet potatoes, cranberries, and pumpkin pie. Normal enough. However, elsewhere in the colonies, specifically Brooklyn, our Italian neighbors celebrated with their traditional Thanksgiving lasagna and antipasto platter.

Later, my wife and in-laws introduced me to the traditional Baltimore side dish of sauerkraut. Curiously, the denizens of Charm City have somehow failed to draw the logical connection between sauerkraut and hot dogs at ball games, but that’s another story.

For the most part, we imagine Thanksgiving as a timeless tableau, a generous feast first celebrated by grateful Pilgrims and kind-spirited Native Americans at the Plymouth Colony in 1641. And we generally envision an assortment of foods similar to our “traditional” Thursday spread, sauerkraut notwithstanding.

Alas, we are savoring more of myth than reality. The first Thanksgiving observance actually took place in Newfoundland, Canada, in 1578, almost 50 years before Plymouth. And when the Separatists of Plymouth finally did celebrate their “First Thanksgiving,” it was more likely held near the end of July a couple years later.

Don’t worry, however, there was undoubtedly a harvest celebration in 1621, and we can always trace our tradition to that event. But don’t expect any mashed potatoes or cranberry sauce.
Written accounts from the period indicate that such feasts included venison, mussels, cod, and herring. What, no turkey? It is possible that wild turkey (the game bird, not the bourbon) was served, although duck, goose and crane were more likely.

Bad news concerning sweet potatoes: Christopher Columbus may have brought the colorful tuber back to Europe in the late 15th century, but in 1621 no one in New England was enjoying baked sweet potatoes drizzled with maple syrup. Likewise for potatoes, the world’s favorite root crop. Boiled, baked, or mashed, the noble spud would not appear on New World tables for another 100 years or more. Fortunately, Native Americans had introduced the settlers to pumpkins and to numerous varieties of squash.

And while cranberry sauce may not have been available, as sugar was not to be had, the Native Americans would have had cranberries on hand. In fact, they often mixed the berries into their traditional travel food, pemmican, sort of a cross between beef jerky and granola bars. Moreover, it has been suggested that Indians may have taught the colonists to tame the tartness of the berry by boiling it along with maple syrup, which may have been the inspiration for cranberry sauce itself.

The colorful cranberry has almost as important a role in American agriculture as it does on the dinner table. Cranberry, along with the Concord grape and the blueberry, is one of the few native fruits commercially grown.

The plant’s name is traced to Crane-berry in the early 17th century, either because cranes were noted gobbling their way through the cranberry bogs, or, more colorfully, because the vine’s discrete pink flowers in spring resemble the head and bill of a Sandhill crane, or the scarlet lores (patch) above the crane’s eye.

Today, while cranberries are grown throughout North America, nearly half the total harvest originates in the bogs of Massachusetts. It seems to be a tradition that lives on.

And while the lowly potato is a relative newcomer to our traditional feast, its journey to our table was as difficult and tenuous as airport, train, and highway traffic the night before Thanksgiving.

Potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) were brought back to the “Old Country” some 50 years after Columbus made landfall. Like the tomato, it is another South and Central American member of the Solanacaea or deadly “Nightshade” family. And, like the tomato, potatoes were considered to contain aphrodisiac properties, on the one hand, or cause leprosy -- which was also associated with unbridled carnal activity. There are varied accounts of potatoes returning to the new world in the Virginia colonies as early as the 1630s, or to New England via Irish immigrants in the early 18th century.

More recently, in developed countries, 99 percent of all root crop production is in potatoes. And why not? They are famously high in fiber, carbohydrates, and protein, as well as vitamins B and C, and essential minerals such as magnesium, zinc, iron, and copper.

For the most part, they are relatively easy to grow, with hundreds of cultivars available, perfect for raised beds or even containers and tubs. For the adventurous gardener, russet or white potatoes might be all well and good, but what about the dazzling array of heirloom varieties, ranging from ‘Yellow Finn’ and ‘German Yellow,’ to red-skinned ‘Pontiac’ and ‘Red Norland,’ or even ‘All Blue’ and ‘Purple Peruvian?’ After all, what could be more traditional than old-fashioned heirloom varieties?

Sweet potatoes introduce another tradition: the annual confusion between sweet potatoes and yams. For the record, the so-called “true yams” (Dioscorea spp.) are actually of West African or Asian origin, and they are dry, white, and quite starchy – unlike the sweeter, delectable flesh of sweet potatoes with their deep yellow or reddish-orange tubers.

Sweet potato (Ipomoea batatus) is related to bindweed or morning glory, as its fast-growing vines will attest, and originated in Central or South America, possibly Brazil, Peru, or Equador.

There are generally two types of sweet potato, a dry-fleshed variety with white flesh, best grown in colder climates (and far too yam-like for comfort), and the moist-flesh or southern variety with which we’re happily familiar. Interestingly, the majority of sweet potatoes are grown in China, while it’s the second most important crop in Japan, where it is used to produce starch, wine, and alcohol. At home, nearly 30 percent of the sweet potatoes grown in the U.S. are cultivated in North Carolina, which also goes a long way to explain the South’s fondness for sweet potato, rather than pumpkin, pie.

Sweet potatoes can be rather versatile in the home garden. They can be cultivated normally, like potatoes, or even used as either an attractive ground cover, or interspersed in hanging baskets with trailing flowers. No promises, but the vines also infrequently produce pink flowers. In addition, by way of warning, I once surprised myself to find about two pounds of tubers growing in a hanging basket one fall season. I had only planted the vines to provide a light green contrast to other, darker foliage, little expecting a side dish.

You can start your sweet potato plantation by simply buying “slips” from local nurseries and garden centers, or through catalogs, for more unusual cultivars. About 25 slips will suffice for a family of four. You can also propagate your own from tubers which you or a neighbor have successfully overwintered from the garden. Don’t try to use store-bought tubers, as they are frequently treated with a compound precisely to prevent sprouting. Set your sweet potato in a glass of water, with one-third submerged. When the young sprouts are about six inches long pull them off (don’t cut them) and set them in water or moist sand until a dense mat of roots are formed. You can transplant them outdoors a few weeks after the last threat of frost. And, by the way, sprouting sweet potatoes is great fun for younger children. Many a school windowsill is covered with vines every spring.

For home composting devotees, note that sweet potatoes can be easily grown in a modest-sized bin filled with shredded leaves from the previous autumn. Be sure to keep the leaf mold moist for the first several weeks while roots are developing. By the following fall, your leaves will have mostly decomposed into a wonderful mulch, and your tubers will have grown freely and exuberantly in their fluffy medium.

Overall, sweet potato vines can grow up to four feet or more, although there are several cultivars with compact growth habits and shorter vines, which are ideally suited for barrels or patio containers, including ‘Bunch Porto Rico’ and ‘Vardaman.’

Other popular standard varieties include ‘Allgold’, ‘Heart-o-gold,’ ‘Nancy Hall,’ ‘Centennial,’ high-yielding ‘Beauregard,’ ‘Jewel,’ ‘Yellow Jersey,’ and ‘Southern Delight.’

And while sweet potatoes are an important part of our Thanksgiving tradition, they are gaining even more status as an important source of nutrition, with fiber, vitamins A and C, iron and calcium, antioxidants, and beta carotene. In fact, one sweet potato provides half the recommended daily allowance of beta carotene. It’s everything you need for a happy – and healthy – holiday. Just watch out for those tiny marshmallows!

Copyright 2010, Joseph M. Keyser

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Branches, Berries & Blooms for Winter

You can beat the blahs of a winter landscape by remembering the three B’s of off-season gardening: blooms, branches, and berries. Admittedly, there are only a handful of introduced plants, and even fewer native species, which bloom and provide colorful relief during the gray days of mid-winter, with the striking and noteworthy exception of witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), alternately called common, fall- or winter-blooming witch hazel.

Our native variety is a relatively slow-growing small tree or upright shrub which begins its horticultural display in autumn with yellow fall foliage which soon turns to orange and golden-brown, and proudly heralds the beginning of its late-season blooming period. After the leaves have fallen, clusters of small, soft-scented yellow flowers appear along the branches from October through December. Each spidery clump consists of four twisted, fringe-like petals not quite one-inch long. Interestingly, the lemon-yellow ribbons tend to fully unfurl on warm sunny days, when we are lucky enough to get them, and, like most of us, curl up into a more compact mass when the weather turns cold and threatening.

More than a dozen non-native witch hazel cultivars have been gaining in popularity among winter gardeners, with dramatic new flower colors ranging from ruby-red and copper, to burgundy and bright orange-yellow, and featuring significantly later blooming periods, even into February, and a stronger fragrance. These low-maintenance hybrids are typically crosses of Chinese and Japanese witch hazels, and include favorites like ‘Jelena,’ which combines brilliant fall foliage in November with an encore of coppery red blooms as late as February and March, and ‘Arnold Promise,’ a brilliant yellow late-blooming cultivar developed by the Arnold Arboretum.

For more year-round color, garden designers have long cherished the subtle and sometimes spectacular twigs and trunks of our native dogwood species. Leading the list is red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea formerly stolonifera), also aptly called red-twig dogwood. This fast-growing specimen is a cousin to the white flowering dogwood with which we are more familiar, and quickly forms attractive thickets ideal for screening or habitat plantings.

Although its white flowers and berries are popular among songbirds like vireos, finch, and pine warblers, they are somewhat dull in appearance, a deficit more than offset by its brilliant red twigs and reddish-green bark. After a snowfall, nothing stands out in a winter garden more than the vivid red stems which seem to shoot up from a pure field of snow. In addition, goldfinches have been known to favor this species for a nesting site; their bright feathers flitting among the branches will ornament both shrub and garden alike.

Another attractive option is the yellow-twig dogwood (‘Silver and Gold’), a cultivar of red osier, renowned for its green and white variegated foliage, good autumn color, and, above all, bright golden bark.

Silky dogwood (Cornus amomum) takes its name from the grayish hairs along younger branches and flower buds, and features reddish-purple twigs and darker mahogany-brown bark. Silky dogwood also presents lovely flat creamy-white clusters of flowers in the spring, followed by bluish clusters of fruit in late summer, often lasting through fall and possibly winter.

The final and perhaps most important components for a winter garden are berries. Berry-bearing small trees and shrubs add a surprising splash of color and seem to stand out equally well against either snow-covered garden beds or leaden winter skies. Of equal importance, berries support scores of migrating and over-wintering birds, some of which, like cardinals, woodpeckers and bluebirds, add their own element of lively color to a landscape.

Topping most lists is winterberry or “possum haw” (Ilex verticillata), a deciduous native holly with upright, spreading stems reaching up to ten feet in height. Clusters of white flowers appear in April through May, producing bright reddish-orange to deep red berries which last through the winter, avian appetites notwithstanding. Keep in mind that winterberry is dioecious, having male and female flowers on respective plants, and requiring at least one male shrub for every three to four female specimens.

Native viburnum species, such as Arrowwood or American cranberry (V. trilobum), provide attractive clusters of white flowers in spring, brilliant fall foliage, and berries ranging from bright red to bluish-black in fall through winter. The species also provide an important source of fruit to more than fifty species of songbirds in our area.

Both red and purple chokeberries (Aronia species) take their name from colorful fruits which offer brilliant red and scarlet foliage in autumn, followed by bright red or blackish-purple fruits throughout the winter. For best effect, it is generally recommended that chokeberries be planted in clusters for a natural, sprawling effect.

Sumacs are best known alongside roadways, but smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) makes for attractive massed plantings or “colonies” in home landscapes, like the chokeberries. Autumn foliar displays, similar to chokeberries, are replaced in winter by greenish-crimson fruit which can last into spring and are keen favorites of bluebirds, catbirds, robins, and mockingbirds.

These, of course, are only a sampling of the (mostly) native species which can be used to adorn a winter garden. There are also evergreens with variegated foliage, ornamental grasses featuring golden orange stems and graceful tufts of seedheads, and so much more. For an expanded tour of the subject turn to Rosemary Verey’s now-classic The Garden in Winter.

Copyright 2010, Joseph M. Keyser

Friday, October 29, 2010

Turning Office Spaces into Greener Places

The modern office is generally a product of strict efficiency and economic design. Lines are straight, wall-coverings are bland, windows are sealed shut, lights fluorescent, and cubicles ubiquitous. And this is where many of us spend the better part of our lives. Perhaps it’s time to consider personalizing – and naturalizing – these uninviting spaces. And the best place to start might be with a favorite houseplant brought from home.

It’s amazing what a welcome addition a plant can be in the workplace. It’s just a simple little living thing, and yet, perched amid the photocopied reports, Post-it notes, and tangled telephone cord, it has the power to transform even the most cluttered of desktops into something uniquely you -- and special.

Even if you have only one African violet by your elbow, it might be enough to distract you from your spreadsheet for a few moments to examine whether a new batch of flowering buds is forming. Perhaps an office mate will wander over to ask you how often you feed your plant, or where you got it. In a sterile environment, that humble plant is an oasis of life. Your spreadsheet can wait.

And if one plant can work such wonders, what about an office-full of them? Truly, plants can enhance the modern office in ways that most people can barely imagine.

Aesthetically, plants can add color and texture to almost any space, however plain. Taller plants or groupings of larger plants can become living architecture to help direct foot traffic, soften harsh corners, create privacy in seating areas, or add verticality in an unending sea of cubicles. Hanging or elevated planters can create a sense of movement when filled with hanging grape ivy or trailing philodendron vines.

Using similar plants throughout a larger space can also provide a unifying or cohesive element, tying and blending together a disparate array of desks, copying machines, doorways, cabinets, and partitions. The final impression is calming and ordered, rather than chaotic.

Plants can function as eye-catching focal points, or discretely mute or camouflage unattractive features. Above all, they add a sense of vitality to an interior landscape of metal and machines.
They can also play a substantial role in promoting physical and psychological health. Clinical studies in Britain and Northern Europe have shown that plants in the workplace reduced stress levels and fatigue by more than 30 percent, along with the symptoms associated with colds and flu, such as coughing and sore throats.

These green allies can also promote good health by cleaning a host of potentially dangerous pollutants from indoor air. Those veneer-and-laminate bookcases, formica-clad desks, carpets, painted walls, and computers, printers, and fax machines are off-gassing a variety of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including formaldehyde. All-in-all, it’s a nasty stew of bad air, generally trapped – along with you – in a closed loop ventilation system.

Fortunately, there’s Mother-in-law’s tongue. I don’t mean my mother-in-law, Melva, who’s also very helpful and health-conscious, but the plant, also known as snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata). This popular and sturdy plant grows elegantly tall, and sometimes flowers, even in low-light, and it is an absolute whiz at snatching pollutants from the air.

But Sansevieria are not alone in this ability. NASA studies in the late 1970s identified a large number of common indoor plants capable of filtering VOCs from the air. They ranged from aloe vera, which needs bright light, but is easy to divide and share with office mates – and serves as a nifty balm for paper-cut fingers, to magenta-striped dracaena, peace lily, and golden pothos, perhaps the toughest indoor plant around.

Simply put, most of the plants best suited to indoor conditions can help clean indoor air. Moreover, ongoing studies show that plants clean the air not only through the stomata or microscopic pores on the leaf surface, much like the filters in home furnaces and HVAC systems, but also through the action of bacteria in the potting soil, which normally make nutrients available for the plant’s root system.

In controlled environments, the soil microorganisms were capable of removing and absorbing up to 20 percent of the air contaminants. Together with the plants themselves, these invisible colonies represent an indoor living system functioning much like the trees, grasses, and algae found outdoors.

But the real value of introducing plants probably goes deeper than stress-busting, filtration, and d├ęcor. In a world that keeps us indoors far-too-long, bringing a bit of the outdoors inside keeps us connected with a larger living world. And beyond the momentary distraction of looking at a blooming bromeliad, the plants also require watering, feeding, and care. They require a time apart from the routine of databases and spam-deletion – a time to actually nurture another living thing. Surely that’s a simple enough bit of occupational therapy.

And then there’s the issue of community – human, not plant. In a world of passwords and name badges, your salmon-budded kalanchoe is a bridge to fellow workers. Perhaps you might divide up one of your succulents for them, or share the decades-old history of your mother’s braided willow-leaf ficus, now thriving by your window. They in turn might bring in a rooted cutting for you, or ask to share a window ledge for their Christmas cactus. That’s how friendships – and communities -- start.

Your office plant can stretch forth your personality, invite a much-needed compliment, and allow you to share and connect with others. It shows, quite humbly, as Shakespeare noted, that “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Composting With Pallets

Wooden shipping pallets are easily recycled into large, heavy-duty compost bins. Pallets are available for free from many area businesses, assemble in minutes, and with them you can produce rich humus, mulch and compost year after year. Here's how:

A Simple Pallet Bin

Obtain five pallets with narrow spaces between slats (1/2" - 1") and of uniform size. Many pallets measure 40" by 48" and will form a 48 cubic foot capacity bin. Pick up pallets from loading docks, freight companies, hardware stores, product wholesalers, nurseries and garden centers. Each year, American businesses send more than 300 million pallets to landfills and incinerators -- there are always plenty around for free. Good places to check are print shops, tire wholesalers, even central post office facilities who handle bulk mail.

To begin, place one pallet (slat-side up) on level ground. This pallet is the bottom of your bin and will allow for good drainage and aeration by keeping yard trimmings above the ground. Properly drained and aerated compost decomposes quickly and without odors.

Arrange the remaining pallets upright around each side of the base to form a box, short (40") sides up. Use spare wire, coathangers, or nylon rope to fasten the pallets together. Join pallets at each corner, lashing both the top and bottom. You can gain access to your compost pile by unfastening one side of a pallet and swinging it out like a hinged door.

Multi-Bin Units

Large properties and institutions like schools and churches may require a larger compost bin system to accommodate their materials. And gardeners looking for quick compost may prefer a multi-bin system to make turning materials easier.

First, construct a single bin as described above. Then expand your compost system by setting another pallet to the right of the base of your existing bin, and adjoining it. Form another box with three additional pallets to form the door and sides of the new bin. The two bins will share one side. Additional "bins" can be added-on using just four pallets at a time.

Two-bin systems allow easy turning of materials by transferring decomposing trimmings from one side to the other. Three-bin systems are favored by aggressive composters, with one bin used for newer materials, which are "turned" or transferred into the second bin after several weeks (or months), and later into the final "curing" bin for several weeks or months, prior to use. Churches and schools frequently construct three, four, or more bin systems to handle materials.


Lifespan and Maintenance

Pallet bin sides generally last from four to six years, depending on the level of active use. Bases last one to two years and need to be replaced. Just drop another fresh pallet over the old base after removing any compost still in the bin -- keep the new base as level as possible. The decomposing pallet will eventually turn to compost. Check corner lashing periodically and replace every several years, or as needed.

Piles and Pallets and Bins

Some composters prefer to use a free standing pile or "heap." Even this simple method of composting can be enhanced by using pallets to improve drainage and aeration. Use a pallet as the base of your compost "heap," rather than the layer of twigs or brush that are traditionally recommended. This smooth, even base will permit materials to be turned much more easily.

To create a pallet base, use a pallet with narrow 1/2" spaces between slats. If a pallet with narrow spaces is not available, try stapling or tacking a layer of hardware cloth to the top of the pallet to keep material from falling through the spaces. Two adjacent pallets on the ground create a handy work area for easy turning.

Homeowners who already have one of many commercially available compost bins can also improve good drainage and aeration. Simply set your open-base bin atop a wooden pallet. A layer of brush is now no longer required, thereby expanding you prefabricated unit's capacity.

Copyright 2010, Joseph M. Keyser

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Great Gourds! In Praise of Pumpkins

As you select and prepare to carve a pumpkin this Halloween, you should pause to reflect on the vast impact this humble gourd has had on our cultural history.

Pumpkins generally trace their origins to Central America, and collections of seed have been found in Mexico dating back several thousand years. Today, pumpkins are grown on every continent except Antarctica, and have found their way into our legends and traditions, kitchens, kitschy competitions, and media.

In literature, we should remember poor Ichabod Crane, knocked for a loss by a pumpkin lobbed by the headless horseman of Washington Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” or even Cinderella’s enchanted carriage. Then, of course, there is the now classic book and television special “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” or the more edgy Pumpkin King, in Tim Burton’s “Nightmare Before Christmas,” to say nothing of the early 90’s band, Smashing Pumpkins.

Culinary uses range from traditional pumpkin pie filling and pumpkin butter, to protein-rich seeds, which can be roasted and salted. The meat of the pumpkin can also be boiled or fried, diced or pureed, and has found its way as a filling for sweet Italian ravioli, soups, and numerous vegetarian dishes. Some microbreweries even produce a seasonal pumpkin ale.

Lately, florists have gotten into the act and use pumpkins as containers to fill with autumn-themed flowers as centerpieces or gift baskets.

If these notions have you seeing orange, then keep in mind that pumpkins come in a host of colors, from the red “Rouge D’Etant” to varieties in gold, buff, greenish-blue, and blue. New cultivars named “Casper” or “Baby-Boo” offer white pumpkins, which might be particularly ghoulish when carved.

Another important variety includes the giant pumpkins, perfect for competitions. Gourd gardeners are now approaching the 1,500 pound barrier on individual specimens. The 1,000 pound mark was broken in 1996 with the variety “Atlantic Giant,” and within the past several years a 1,458 pound specimen made its way into the Guinness Book of Records. There are also articles about a man who grew more than 2,700 pounds of pumpkin on a single vine.

Another somewhat less-dignified competition includes the popular “pumpkin flings” held each year, such as the “World Championship Punkin Chunkin” in Delaware. Approximately 30,000 people gather to watch medieval style catapults, 100 foot-long cannons, and four-story tall slingshots shoot ten-pound pumpkins up to 4,000 feet through the air.

However, pumpkins no doubt have their greatest appeal when artfully carved and illuminated as Jack-o’-Lanterns for Halloween. And while this tradition is relatively new, especially in the New World, its origins extend back thousands of years into the misty past.

We begin with Celts celebrating the “Feast of Samhain” on November 1. The feast takes its name from the Gaelic Samhraidhreadh, meaning summer’s end, and is a celebration of the final harvest, which featured bonfires, food, dancing, and costumes. It is also an important mystical time, the start of a new year, when the transition between seasons opens a doorway into the realm of spirits.

Samhain is also identified as a godlike individual, sometimes defined as a “lord of the dead.” This mythic figure is depicted carrying a lantern or spectral fire, with which he guides lost and roaming spirits to the supernatural realm. His appearance is also associated with Will-o’-the-Wisp, or Welsh “Corpse Candles,” ghostly flames which move over bogs and through cemeteries.

The Feast of Samhain began its “conversion” to Halloween in 844, when Pope Gregory transferred the Christian feast for “All Saints” or “All Hallows” (meaning “holy”) from May 13 to November 1, to coincide with the Celtic “pagan” festival.

As centuries passed and traditions fused, the figure of Samhain guiding spirits with a spectral light was seemingly recast by Irish storytellers as a Christianized Jack-o’-Lantern. Incidentally, “jack” is no more than a term for any common man, and therefore Jack-o’-Lantern simply means “man with a lantern.”

The tragic legend of Jack holds that he was an inveterate prankster whose cunning ran afoul of the devil himself. Upon his death Jack finds that he is barred from heaven for never having performed an unselfish act, and similarly banned from hell. Doomed to a twilight existence between worlds, Jack carves a turnip and creates a lantern to guide his way, lighting it with an infernal ember coaxed from the devil.

The tradition of carving lanterns out of turnips and lighting them with embers or oil continued for centuries among Irish households. Moreover, like the medieval practice of carving gargoyles on cathedrals to scare off malevolent forces, the Irish carved ghastly visages into their turnips to ward off those evil spirits who roamed the countryside.

In time, of course, Irish immigrants brought their turnip carving to the new world, where they happily discovered a much larger gourd suitable for carving. And yet, one has to wonder what the ancient Celts and their Druid priests might have made of “punkin chunkin.” We will have to ask them when they show up again on the next Samhain.

Copyright 2010, Joseph M. Keyser

Monday, October 18, 2010

Home Composting Basics

The key to successful composting is getting started simply and properly, avoiding unwanted surprises, and learning how to slowly adjust your composting technique to achieve a rich, beautiful product to serve the needs of your garden -- and your lifestyle.

Location: Before starting, determine an appropriate location for the compost pile. Vegetable gardeners should set up piles or bins in the vegetable garden itself, thereby allowing any nutrients leaching out of the pile to enrich the garden's soil and feed surrounding plants.

All gardeners should select a level, easily accessible site, preferably near a water source and at least one foot away from any wooden structures (fungi do not discriminate between twigs, branches, and fences). Bins or piles should not be built directly against a tree trunk or in a tree well, which might harbor bark-gnawing mice or inhibit respiration. To ensure domestic tranquility, avoid placing a pile directly on a property line or next to a neighbor's patio or window. A pile can be built in either sun or shade with equal success, although gardeners in hot, dry climates often favor a shaded location to prevent the pile from drying out during summer months.

To bin or not to bin: Using a bin is often an aesthetic choice, although bins can play a practical role in effective composting. Freestanding piles can work extremely well in most situations, although smaller piles are inefficient at conserving moisture and heat, which can be important elements in the compost ecosystem; moreover, mounded piles tend to shed water like a thatched roof.

Bins of almost any description can help organize materials, keeping a garden area tidy, and will also allow more control over the composting process. By simply concentrating materials together in a smaller volume, bins encourage a higher level of biological activity, which facilitates decomposition. Also, the materials lining the inside of the bin serve as a mulch layer, retaining moisture and the useful metabolic heat given off by the bacteria.

Design Considerations: Be sure to tailor your bin or bin system to accommodate the amount of material your property and garden generate. Also, avoid allowing the materials in any pile or bin to exceed five feet in height; besides being awkward to manage, tall piles will severely compact materials, reducing or cutting off the circulation of oxygen and potentially leading to sluggish, anaerobic conditions.

Covering a bin is only advisable for wetter climates, where an excess of precipitation might waterlog a pile or leach away an appreciable amount of valuable nutrients. Most temperate climate bins benefit from being open to the elements, where periodic rainfall can provide most of the moisture needed by a pile, especially if the top of the pile is given a concave or funnel shape to capture rainfall and other moisture. An exception should be made for cold, winter months, when biological activity slows down and where additional moisture is not needed and may only leach away nutrients.

A Good Base: Before adding the first handful of compostable material, it is essential to establish a good base for the pile or bin. A six to ten inch layer of brush is usually sufficient and easily assembled by layering a variety of twigs, branches, corn stalks, and other coarse material on the ground to form a crude mat. These materials can also be broken up to fit inside a compost bin, if necessary. Another option is to use a wooden shipping pallet with half-inch spaces between slats as the base: pallets are plentiful and free, easily keep materials off the ground, provide a smooth, flat working surface for pitchforks and other implements, and most commercial bins will sit right on top.

A compost base provides important drainage for the pile, since materials left directly on the ground can become saturated with water, leading to an anaerobic state. Earth-hugging piles can also become infiltrated by tree roots if left in place too long, making harvesting the compost incredibly difficult -- and potentially dangerous to the root system of the invading tree.

Raising the pile off the ground is also the first, best step toward achieving a self- (or passively-) aerated pile, meaning that less turning and maintenance is required. The base allows an ample supply of oxygen to enter the pile from the bottom, one of the lesser-known secrets of effective composting. Since the microorganisms in the pile generate heat and carbon dioxide as metabolic byproducts, the warm gas will rise and vent from the pile, creating an upward draft which will then draw fresh air into the pile naturally -- but only if the pile is sitting above the ground, with the porous base providing oxygen to this biological furnace.

Compostable Materials: Homes and gardens across the country produce a wide variety of organic materials in very different proportions, with yard trimmings -- leaves, grass, weeds, brush, and prunings -- representing the major share of compostables, although kitchen scraps and agricultural manures can also play a significant role. And while almost anything organic will decompose, it does not mean that everything should simply be tossed into a compost bin and forgotten.

Leaves: Leaves are generally the easiest materials to manage and are frequently the carbon-rich backbone of most piles in temperate areas. All leaves can be composted, from Abelia to Zelkova, and all the ash, maples, and oaks in-between; there is no reason to be concerned about acidity or relative carbon-to-nitrogen values.

Leaves can be composted whole, or shredded and gathered up with a lawn mower and bagging attachment, or chopped up with a dedicated power shredder. As is the case with all compostable materials, reducing particle size will accelerate the decomposition process. Leaves added to a pile or bin should be moistened as they are added. Place a few armfuls into the bin and use a hose with spray attachment to thoroughly moisten them; repeat the process, adding water at each step.

Leaves can be composted all by themselves, producing a high humus leaf mold in about one year, if the pile is turned several times per season. Or the process can be hastened by incorporating other nitrogen-rich materials, like grass clippings and weeds, into the mix, producing a finer, loam-like compost.

Grass: Grass clippings are the second most widely composted yard material, full of nitrogen, and capable of speeding up the decomposition of carbonaceous materials such as leaves, straw, or chipped brush. Most savvy gardeners realize that healthy lawns thrive when clippings are grasscycled, or left on the lawn after mowing. However, on some occasions, it is beneficial to remove clippings and add them to the compost pile.

For effective composting, grass should never be composted by itself. In fact, most odor complaints regarding compost piles result from piles made up of clippings alone. Grass is over 90 percent water and the thin blades rapidly clump together and form anaerobic masses giving off a strong ammonia odor. Always thoroughly mix grass into other dry or higher-carbon materials. Do not allow the grass to form layers, and do not simply dump loads of grass onto an existing pile. Grass must always be worked into a pile.

Weeds: Even the best gardeners have to pull weeds, but it is the wise composting gardener that turns weeds into a success story. Weeds are like grass, succulent and full of nitrogen, and should be cheerfully mixed into the pile, with the important exception of invasive weeds, weeds with vigorous rhizomes, or weeds which have already set seed, all of which should be kept away from the pile.

Woody materials: Hedge trimmings, small twigs and branches, stalks, wood mulch (both old and new), pine cones, large seed pods, and other woody matter and brush are extremely high in carbon and will take longer to decompose than leaves. Decomposition can be aided by chipping the materials, or by at least cutting them up with lopping shears or hand pruners. A good rule of thumb is never to add anything longer than six inches in length or thicker than half an inch. Larger materials will simply haunt the compost pile for years to come and make turning the pile more difficult.

Other trimmings: Ornamental grasses, decorative vines, dead-headed flowers, annuals, perennial prunings, and most of the other herbaceous material in the garden can and should be added to the pile, again being careful to chop up materials as much as possible. Pine needles can be also be added, although they are somewhat slow to break down and are always ready to be used immediately as a mulch wherever acid-loving plants are concerned.

Agricultural Manures: Animal manures are wonderful sources of nitrogen and other nutrients, especially for gardeners without access to grass clippings. Poultry manure is a concentrated source of nitrogen, although the odor is rather difficult to work around. Cow manure is one of the most valuable additions to the compost pile and the garden, while horse manure is readily available, even in most urban areas. Exercise caution when using agricultural manures, however, especially with stable "sweepings," since those materials often harbor a high percentage of viable weed seeds. Strive to attain a hot pile to destroy remaining seeds.

Food Scraps: Spoiled vegetables and fruits and kitchen scraps provide a rich, free source of nitrogen. Coffee grounds are as high in nitrogen as grass clippings, and can even be brought home by the bucket from gourmet coffee shops. Tea leaves and tea bags, coffee filters, corn husks and cobs, fruit rinds, vegetable trimmings, egg shells, and a miscellany of peels and scrapings -- anything other than meat or dairy-related materials or shortenings -- are prime candidates for addition, although they must be added properly.

Any food item, including spoiled fruits taken directly from the garden, should always be buried at least one foot into an existing pile. Depositing scraps on top of the pile, even an enclosed bin, is a guaranteed method for attracting fruit flies, gnats, maggots, and larger "winged" and "tailed" pests. In urban areas or communities with rodent problems, a completely enclosed unit, such as a lidded metal trash can with small holes, is recommended, as are indoor worm boxes.

Household materials: Compostable materials from around the house are usually carbon-rich, including black and white newspaper sections, corrugated and uncoated cardboard, dried flowers, wood or fireplace ash (never charcoal or coal ash), and untreated sawdust. Cardboard and newspaper should be ripped-up into strips and moistened, preferably by soaking in a bucket of water.

Materials to Avoid: Good hygiene is as important for the compost pile as it is for the garden. It is always best to avoid adding any diseased plant materials since viruses and other pathogens, including nematodes and related pests, are not always destroyed in the composting process. Observe the adage, "when in doubt, throw it out." Also, despite industry assurances, it is advisable to avoid adding pesticide-treated plants, including grass clippings, especially if the finished compost is to be used in a vegetable garden; a similar warning should be noted for pressure-treated wood scraps and sawdust. Do not add irritating plant materials such as poison sumac and poison ivy, although nettles will break down completely. Avoid adding any food materials that have been mixed with shortenings, spreads, meats, or dairy products. Add grain-derived foods with caution. Never add bones, fat, or meat itself. And never add the fecal waste of dogs, cats, or other carnivorous pets to avoid disease pathogens both while in handling and using the compost.

Also, while not dangerous, some items might best be left out of the pile, including the waxy leaves of magnolias and hollies, which break down very slowly, pine cones, and sweet gum "balls," among other stubborn materials, although chipping will speed them on their way.

The Right Stuff: The types of materials added to a well-made pile, and their management, will determine the quality of the final compost product. Leaves alone, properly moistened and turned, fluffed, or aerated several times per season will result in a satisfactory and workable leaf mold -- but not finished compost. For best results, a compost pile must be, as the word implies, a composite of different materials.

Most composting literature revolves around the legendary and ideal carbon-to-nitrogen (C:N) ratio of 30:1, borrowing from the fact that all organic matter contains a certain percentage of both carbon and nitrogen. In effect, the varied strains of bacteria primarily responsible for decomposition have an ideal "diet" of 30:1, wherein the carbohydrates of carbon are balanced by a suitable proportion of protein or nitrogen. Most deciduous leaves have a C:N range of 50-70:1, while grass clippings, manures, and food scraps have a range of 15-20:1; woody materials often range as high as 500:1. Too much nitrogen in a pile results in the formation of ammonia gas; too much carbon and the pile will sulk for years. Mix the ingredients together, and a balance is achieved, resulting in a C:N more ideal for the bacteria, and in a faster, harder working compost pile.

Getting to the ideal mix of materials is generally a process of experimentation: mixing different types of material when they become seasonably available. In autumn and winter, leaves should be gathered and prepared in the bin; in spring and summer, grass and other green plant matter should be collected and mixed into the pile. As the materials are blended, the temperature of the pile will rise, signifying a dramatic increase in biological activity.

During peak mixing season, it will be necessary to turn or aerate the pile every time new materials are added and, for a hot pile, approximately once every two weeks. Turning with less frequency will also result in a good compost product, but will necessarily take longer.

Investment: It is beneficial to the composting process to invest time and energy in initially building the bin or pile, ensuring that added materials are moist, selecting the proper diversity of materials for a compost "stew," and periodically checking and correcting the moisture content. Beyond establishing a healthy pile, a composter can spend as much or as little time in maintenance as is desired. Frequent turning and shredding of materials will boost the process, but a slower approach can also yield an elixir for the garden.

Many composters actually prefer to exert themselves less and let time and nature -- and earthworms -- do most of the work. This more passive approach is well served by using two compost bins or systems, one for each alternating year. Fill a bin this year, harvest from it in two years, and so on, back and forth, with a fraction of the turning, mixing, and management. The final compost from this "vintage" approach may be lighter in nutrient content, but still valuable as an organic soil conditioner.

Troubleshooting: Sometimes things go wrong -- even with composting. Fortunately, every problem has a fairly direct solution, with most of the problems stemming from lack of moisture, too much moisture, a nitrogen imbalance, or poorly managed food scraps.

Troubleshooting (Problem - Cause: Solution)
  • Bad Odor - Uncovered or improperly used food scraps : Remove and discard any improper materials (meats, dairy, etc.); bury materials under one foot or more of inert materials.
  • Bad Odor - Anaerobic pile: Turn materials, mixing in dry leaves, straw, or wood chips. Check base of pile for proper drainage.
  • Bad Odor - Too much grass: Mix grass with other dry or high-carbon materials or remove some grass, spread out to dry, and mix back into pile.
  • Insect Pests - Too dry, not mixed properly: Make sure food materials are properly buried, and turn outer layer of materials into core of pile. Hot piles will destroy or deter most insects, such as grubs and other larvae (maggots). Moisten pile if necessary; moist piles deter bees and wasps. Use caution when taking wood chips and woody material from potential termite and carpenter ant sources such as rotted wood piles or municipal mulch piles.
  • Insect Pests - Not necessarily pests: Not all insects in a compost pile are "pests," the compost ecosystem includes a host of useful invertebrates, including isopods, millipedes, centipedes, worms, ants, among others.
  • Animal Pests - Improper food handling: Most animals are deterred by burying food under other materials; for persistent problems, especially with rodents, stop adding food, use an enclosed bin, or change bin design to restrict access. A secure lid will discourage most possums, raccoons, and birds.
  • Pile not breaking down - Insufficient nitrogen: Add grass, manure, kitchen scraps or other natural nitrogen source.
  • Pile not breaking down - Pile is too dry: Add water while turning until moist, not wet; should feel like a sponge throughout.
  • Pile not breaking down - Poor aeration: Start turning and mixing materials more often; check integrity of base, replace if broken down.
  • Pile heats up, then stops - Poor aeration: Hot piles need lots of fresh oxygen: turn materials as pile starts to cool down. It might be necessary to add an additional nitrogen source periodically.
  • Pile is slightly warm at middle - Pile is too small: Piles require a certain critical mass (approximately 18-20 cubic feet) to work efficiently. Add more materials if possible, or use a smaller bin to concentrate the pile's volume.

Copyright 2010, Joseph M. Keyser