Monday, December 12, 2011

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 2011, Joseph M. Keyser

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The Amazing Amaryllis: Queen of Bulbs

In our previous posting, Big, Bloomin' Bulbs (Dec. 3, 2011), 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 2011, Joseph M. Keyser

Saturday, December 03, 2011

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 2011, Joseph M. Keyser

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Planting Christmas 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 2011, Joseph M. Keyser

Sunday, November 27, 2011

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 2011, Joseph M. Keyser

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

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 2011, Joseph M. Keyser

Sunday, November 13, 2011

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 2011, Joseph M. Keyser

Friday, November 11, 2011

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 2011, Joseph M. Keyser

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

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 2011, Joseph M. Keyser

Friday, November 04, 2011

Autumn & the Garden Year Begins

The days are growing shorter and colder, and your mailbox is already full of winter catalogs. You might think your garden chores are finished for the season. Think again. The garden year actually begins with the misty, mellow days of autumn.

Spring only seems like the perfect time to resume work on your landscape. After all, garden centers are overflowing seductively with flowering plants, community groups plan Arbor Day celebrations and all around, you can hear lawnmowers chomping on fast-growing grass.

However, planting trees and shrubs in the spring gives the plants very little time to overcome transplant shock and develop essential root systems before summer's scorching heat and dry conditions.

Fall is the ideal and appropriate time to plant and transplant trees, shrubs and many perennials. In fact, it is important to get both broad-leaved and needle-leaved evergreens in the ground no later than mid-autumn. Species like holly, spruce, juniper, pine, fir and hemlock do not enter a dormant phase. Instead, they continue to transpire actively through their leaves during winter, which requires fully functioning root systems capable of taking water from the soil.

Planting as soon as possible allows roots to reestablish vital root hairs or fibers, which will begin supplying water. This is especially important for any plant with a root system that may have been damaged while being dug up for transplanting. Moreover, fall planting gives transplants two full growing seasons to become settled in before the dog days of summer. Water thoroughly after planting – and keep watering every week, if dry conditions ensue.

Planting and transplanting deciduous trees and shrubs — like maples, dogwoods, lilacs, hydrangea and viburnum — is best done after their leaves have fallen, signaling dormancy. Without the burden of supplying water and nutrients to leaves and branches, the tree can focus on growing new roots and preparing for blooming and leafing out in spring.

Fall is also the season for planting almost all hardy spring-flowering bulbs, such as tulips, scilla, crocuses, hyacinths and narcissus, which includes daffodils and jonquils. Some gardeners prefer digging individual holes for each bulb, especially with more formal species like tulips. Prepare a hole two-and-one-half times deeper than the bulb’s diameter. Before setting the bulb in place, toss in a handful of bonemeal or a dose of a “complete fertilizer,” then fill in the hole.

A better approach for other bulbs might be to treat them like perennials. Prepare a well-drained planting area or bed by removing any weeds and debris and topping the area with four to six inches of compost. Incorporate the compost into the existing soil with a shovel, spade or rototiller, working the amendment down into the top 10 or 12 inches of existing earth. Then insert the bulbs into the fluffy, organically-rich planting medium, preferably in groups or clumps — far more attractive than formal rows Many gardeners use this type of preparation to “naturalize” bulbs like crocus and daffodils, thereby creating a flow of bright, nodding blooms between trees on a lawn, or down a hillside. Such plantings, also called “drifts,” are often seen along parkways and in natural garden areas.

Rescue, renovate or rethink your lawn during the fall as well. If you have not worked on it in autumn, anything you do in spring will be too little and too late. Start by investing in a simple $5-10 soil test through your local cooperative extension service office. The test will provide complete and sound directions for applying lime and fertilizer. Remember that autumn is the best and sometimes the only time to feed most turfgrasses.

Like trees and shrubs, grass plants continue to develop roots throughout winter. Feeding the roots and aiding their development now will ensure a healthier, more drought-tolerant lawn come spring and summer.

Lawns could also do with a breath of fresh air about now. Consider contracting with a landscaper to core aerate the lawn, or rent an aerator and do it yourself. The process, which normally costs less than $100 regardless of who does the work, will remove plugs from the soil and allow air to infiltrate deeper into the ground and stimulate grass roots. The small holes will improve drainage and help nutrients and organic matter — such as grass clippings and leaves — work their way into the soil horizon.

You also can add valuable organic matter to your lawn by mulching or grinding up leaves with a mower. Otherwise, rake up fallen leaves and other debris and add them to the compost pile to prevent the spread of fungal diseases during the wet winter months.

If your lawn has been a disappointment, cut it down to size. Autumn is the perfect time to create new planting beds. Either remove sod with a shovel or leave it in place and smother it with cardboard and newspaper. Apply six, eight or more inches of mulch over the top of the bed and walk away. Worms and microorganisms will gobble up grass, roots and mulch while you sip hot cocoa indoors, leaving you with a brand-new planting area to play with in spring. Instead of complaining about your lawn, spend winter thumbing through colorful garden and seed catalogs.

Copyright 2011, Joseph M. Keyser

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Townhouse Garden Transformations

There’s no denying that townhouse communities are popping up like weeds across the land. Townhouses are popular and often more affordable than single family homes, and with a bit of horticultural slight of hand, they can provide almost as many satisfying garden options as larger yards.

The trick to mastering these smaller, confined landscape areas is to realize the inherent limitations of your site, and to create the illusion of more space.

First of all, remember that this is not a normal landscaping project. Your 500 to 1,000 square foot patch of earth, possibly with neighbors on each side, is not going to accommodate a towering oak. In fact, large trees can make small spaces seem even smaller.

That’s not to say that trees are not welcome in your miniature back-forty. In fact, smaller trees, or shrubs trained into tree-form, can and should provide visual anchors or structure for your overall design. Choose species which feature open “scaffolding,” as well as year-round appeal, such as serviceberry, flowering crabapple, fringe tree, redbud, or some of the exquisite Japanese maples, with their intricately fine-cut leaves and colorful foliage.

Espaliered trees can also become vital elements in a sunny yard encompassed by a tall fence. A host of fruit and ornamental species are available at area nurseries, already trained to grow vertically with formally-spaced branches stretching out across a flat surface. Instead of a dull expanse of fence, you could enjoy a living wall of tasty apples, pears, plums, and apricots, or colorful magnolias, hollies, junipers, and yews.

Of course, the goal is not merely to camouflage fences and fill in empty space. A townhouse garden should strive to appear larger and more varied than it really is. One of the most successful approaches is to divide the yard into several “garden rooms,” each with a unique character.

For example, plant a free-flowing hedge along the outside edge of a patio using ornamental grasses. Select up to several species of the taller grasses to provide variety in color and texture. Plant the grasses in odd-numbered clumps, all of the same species, and, for additional color and contrast, surround each grouping with masses of colorful perennials, such as daylilies, black-eyed susans, joe-pye weed, and coneflowers.

These plantings will physically and visually separate your patio or outdoor living area from the rest of the garden, and cleverly tease the eye into thinking that the yard goes on quite a bit further. Moreover, these graceful grasses, gently tossed by a breeze, also provide a delightful sense of motion, which will make your landscape seem larger.

A second-story deck need not serve as merely a viewing platform. Along the outer edge place one of more trellises in or against decorative containers or tubs. These structures can then sport a dazzling collection of clematis or other ornamental climbers. Properly arranged, these vertical elements can similarly separate your deck from the rest of your garden, providing a colorful frame for gazing outward, while also adding a welcome bit of privacy from the neighbors.

And don’t forget that your deck structure itself can be visually softened by training colorful climbers and vines against the otherwise stark supporting posts and railings of a second-story deck.

Beyond the deck and patio, you can further separate your yard into unique areas with the addition of structures such as pergolas, garden arches, and arbors. Any of these can provide living windows to the rest of your garden, an incomplete glimpse of the whole, which implies mystery and inspires curiosity.

In smaller spaces, traditional wooden gazebos might seem well out of place and scale, but townhouse gardeners can turn to a number of recently available metal and wrought-iron gazebos, which are little more than attractive frameworks onto which perennial or annual vines can be trained. Quickly and inexpensively, another garden room is created, as is a secondary destination for entertaining or relaxing. Just add a bistro table, chairs, and bottle of wine, and you might forsake your deck altogether.

Small spaces have other advantages for gardeners on a budget. Ponds and other water features can frequently cost a great deal in both money and maintenance responsibilities. Yet for a townhouse garden, one can easily manage a smaller, prefabricated pond, pre-planted whiskey barrel wetland, or solar-powered fountain.

Even a single Victorian gazing ball, faux-gothic concrete statue, or gleaming copper birdbath can become a unique and dramatic centerpiece in your garden. Exercise restraint, however, and employ these elements sparingly. In a small space, too many “artistic” elements can quickly become clutter.

The divisions you create in your yard using trees, planting areas, and foliage-draped structures should be joined together with a free-flowing pathway meandering around the plantings and through structures and other garden rooms. Strive to create a route wherein each turn will reveal a new and interesting view. Avoid straight paths which will unfortunately create an impression of cells, rather than the illusion of an unfolding series of gardens.

And don’t forget about the plants! Small space gardening requires more planning and care in plant selection. If your townhouse or a neighboring fence casts a deep shadow over your garden, you will need to think of plants best suited for shade.

Select plants with extended bloom periods, and interweave plants with varied flowering periods so that no bed is ever without interesting color or texture. Also use layered plantings, such as placing spring bulbs under later-blooming perennials.

Add distinctive wrought-iron hanging baskets and richly glazed containers overflowing with annuals to add spots of color to drab areas. Containers also allow you to use exotic tropical plants and tender perennials outdoors during warmer weather; just bring them inside before late season frosts.

Clearly, the challenges posed by a townhouse lot are offset by using the site creatively. For most homeowners, a yard is just a yard. For townhouse gardeners, it’s an opportunity to create a world (or worlds) in miniature, with vine-covered entertaining spaces, a pleasant path toward a gurgling fountain, a kitchen garden thriving beneath an espaliered apple tree. In reality, the only limiting thing about a townhouse garden is the imagination.

Copyright 2011, Joseph M. Keyser

Sunday, July 10, 2011

A Treasury of Topiary

Since the early 1970s, garden enthusiasts have flocked to Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton, Maryland, for a view of horticulture taken to a fanciful extreme. Of course, with a little effort, most patient gardeners can create their own topiary displays, whether to adorn a doorway or grace a dining room table.

Traditionally, topiary has been the art of training and pruning small trees and shrubs into a variety of ornamental shapes, ranging from the geometrical to the whimsical, with moments of pure inspiration, such as the manicured collection in Columbus, Ohio’s Topiary Park, which recreates the impressionist figures in Georges Seurat's “A Sunday On The Island Of La Grande Jatte.”

Topiary found it origins principally with the Romans more than two millennia ago, flourished during the Elizabethan period, languished somewhat during the 18th century, and once again found renewed interest with the Victorians, whose industrial mania enjoyed reshaping every aspect of the natural world.

Today, topiary has moved from grand public parks and palaces to kitchen countertops and coffee tables. In fact, during the holidays, it was not surprising to see most local grocery stores and garden centers offering miniature “Christmas trees” shaped from rosemary.

One reason for the increased popularity is the modern use of herbs, such as rosemary, whose smaller growth habit and fragrant leaves permit the same degree of artistic trimming and shaping, while yielding culinary cuttings and a rich, satisfying aroma, all in a very manageable size.

In addition, formal standards have readily become as popular as sculpted topiary forms. A standard has a straight and usually single upright stem, initially trained to a stake, and supporting a head or “crown,” which is often spherical, consisting of carefully manicured smaller stems and leaves. Almost as common are “poodles,” multi-tiered standards featuring three to five pompom-like heads.

Herbal standards are perhaps the easiest introduction to the art of topiary for most aspiring gardeners, at least those with patience. Bear in mind that it will take approximately two years to train a simple standard and another two for the plant to fully mature.

To begin, select a favorite herb, considering how large a standard you want in the end. Your topiary must observe elements of proportion, meaning that the smaller the leaf-size, the smaller the standard. Assorted lavender species, curry plant, and the more than 40 species of rosemary can readily produce handsome tabletop standards ranging from eight to 18 inches or more, while larger-leaf species like sweet bay (Laurus nobilis) or fast-growing scented geraniums should be trained to between four and six feet.

Your plant should be well-rooted and straight, with its initial growing tip intact. Be sure not to trim or damage the apical tip until your standard reaches its desired height. Most garden centers offer herbs in four inch pots ideal for starting out.

To start training your topiary, use a 10 to 12 inch plastic or metal stake. Wooden stakes can easily rot within a year or so. Herb specialist Elise Felton also recommends wrapping metal stakes with florist’s tape, both to dress up the stake and provide a stickier support for the ties needed to secure the plant during training.

Secure the stem every half-inch or so, using a flexible tie. Do not use metal twist-ties, as they can damage the stem and ultimately girdle the plant. You will want to remove any leaves or needles between the stem and the stake, and also prune any side shoots that appear as the plant grows. When, or if, the plant reaches the top of the stake, remove the ties and stake and replace it with a stake 20-24 inches tall.

When the plant reaches its desired height you can pinch the growing tip and start allowing two to four pairs of side branches to develop. At the same time, remove any remaining leaves on the “trunk” and, if the stem has become woody, once again secure the stem with soft ties one or so inches apart.

As the side shoots grow, pinch them back about every two inches or two nodes of growth. You will continue with this process every week or so, until those stubby stems take on the regal form of a globe. When complete, carefully remove the stake.

For ongoing care, be sure to provide adequate light during the cold months, when most herbs should be brought inside. However, whether indoors or out, rotate your herbal standard to ensure even growth. And inspect regularly for pests, especially mites and mealy bugs who might try to enjoy your topiary as much as yourself. And do not slack off on your pruning regimen. To keep your topiary shapely, you will need to keep routinely pinch back new growth, although those clippings can be added to potpourri or stew pots as an added dividend – or incentive.

Of course, there is more to topiary than formal standards. Fortunately, the growing interest in topiary has led to the wide availability of unique forms and frames onto which plants can be trained. The range of shapes is almost inexhaustible, with everything from traditional cones, spirals, and spheres, to dancing teddy bears, dinosaurs, Degas-inspired ballerinas, and letters of the alphabet, for people obsessed with monograms.

Many of the larger frames offered are actually filled with green moss, and ornamental ivy and other climbers are encouraged to cover the surface. However, for the herbal-inclined, many of the smaller basic shapes, such as wreathes and hearts, are ideal for training santolina, dwarf myrtle, prostate rosemary, and a host of other fragrant or flavorful species.

For topiary fans anxious for quick results, there are standards, poodles, and other shapes available at nurseries and through mail-order suppliers. They may lack the investment of energy and care of a do-it-yourself project, but it might be the necessary first step to inspire you to designs of your own.

Copyright 2011 Joseph M. Keyser

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

A Sage Approach to Your Garden

Few plants have commanded such a central role in human history as common garden sage. First revered for its medicinal properties in antiquity, this unassuming member of the mint family was held sacred to the Greek and Roman gods, traded by the Dutch for tea from China, and has been revered by herbalists for millennia, from Dioscorides and Galen to your local GNC outlet.

Common sage (Salvia officinalis) is, however, but one member of the substantial genus Salvia, which actually takes its botanical name from the Latin salvus for “well” or “sound” (also salvere “to be in good health”), echoing its earliest association with curative and life-extending abilities.

Today, thanks to plant hunters and hybridizers, there are roughly 900 species of salvia found worldwide. And while few of them can genuinely promise immortality – or favor with the gods – there are probably a dozen or so which can liven up your garden, spice up your kitchen, and generally provide a healthy bit of habitat for butterflies and hummingbirds.

Limiting your choices is the hard part. My friend, garden writer and herb guru Kathy Fisher, once noted that of the 900 or so species of salvia, about 899 are worth growing. And why not? Consider a flower palette ranging from lipstick red and magenta to salmon, pink, white, and luscious blues which mirror the sky and deepen to violet and inky-blackish. The foliage on varied species can be lime or dark green, creamy white, or a mixture of pinks, purple, white, and green.

And while you might think that common sage is important enough for its culinary and medicinal applications (now a valued antioxidant), there are outstanding varieties which combine flavor and aroma with pure artistry. Golden garden sage (S. officinalis ‘Icterina’) features a swirling variegated pattern of golden yellow and green; purple sage has matte purple leaves which age to a soft green color; ‘Berggarten’ sage has very large silvery-gray fuzzy leaves; and ‘Tricolor’ sage with gray-green foliage splotched with pale pink, purple, or cream.

Most culinary sages feature lilac-blue flowers, some with dark purple sepals, save for ‘Albiflora,’ a real show-off with pure white flowers. Best of all, the scent and flavor of sage bestirs delicious memories of Thanksgiving, family, turkey and stuffing – although the herb is well-suited and renowned for use in tea, or with pork, soups, sausage, duck, cheese, various egg dishes, and savory breads. Remember that fresh leaves are appreciably stronger in flavor than dried, and that harvesting in the early morning provides the highest level of essential oils. For drying purpose, harvest in spring before flower stalks appear.

All of the officinalis sages are tolerant of heat and humidity, especially ‘Berggarten,’ and most should survive all but the harshest winters. True garden sage is the hardiest of the lot, but all will become leggy after several years and are best replaced at that time.

In the wider world of salvia, you will find species suitable as ground covers and edging plants, hanging baskets, and even annual shrubs or hedges. As most ornamental salvias come to us from Mexico and South America, they are too tender to survive the winter, and can either be treated as annuals, or they can be planted in containers and moved to an indoor location prior to frost.

Personally, I do not have the space to overwinter my favorite salvia, blue anise sage (S. guaranitica), a cobalt blue hummingbird magnet, which becomes a five feet bush by midsummer, but as salvias propagate easily from tip cuttings, I simply snip off three or four shoots in the fall, root them in water or a sterile medium, and care for these offspring through the winter care until they return to the garden.

Among some of other deservedly popular varieties are grape-scented sage (S. melissodora), whose pale blue blossoms exude an almost intense grape soda-like perfume aroma, unique in a genus where most flowers have a negligible scent.

‘Cleveland’ sage is heralded as the most fragrant variety of all sages. While most sages release their aroma after brushing against the foliage, “Cleveland’ readily wafts its scent with the slightest of breezes. Buckeyes beware! The plant was actually discovered in California, not Ohio, and was named after the nineteenth century plant collector, Daniel Cleveland, who first spotted the silvery-grey foliage on an expedition.

Pineapple sage (S. elegans) is one of the most popular salvias owing to the fresh-cut pineapple scent released whenever its leaves are bruised. It also sports brilliant -- and edible -- red flowers, appearing in late summer through fall. Pineapple sage is also one of the last great hummingbird plants to bloom in late autumn, and provides the balance of vital nectar needed by migrating ruby-throated hummers as they head south. Scarlet pineapple sage has larger, deeper colored blooms, and the cultivar 'Frieda Dixon' has pink flowers.

Autumn sage (S. gregii) provides an abundance of drought-tolerant cultivars with non-stop and profuse blooming habits. Easily found examples are Maraschino’ (like the cherry) with scarlet flowers; ‘Wild Watermelon’ in fuchsia; aptly named ‘Plum Wine’ and ‘Raspberry Royale’; ‘Moonlight’ with pale yellow blooms, and ‘Desert Blaze’ which contrasts fire engine red flowers against creamy-white and green variegated foliage.

From ancient Greek physicians to a solitary planter on your patio, there’s a world of salvias just waiting to enhance your life and gardening enjoyment. Now that’s sage advice!

Copyright 2011, Joseph M. Keyser