Monday, December 15, 2014

Holiday Plants in Legend and Lore

For many people, the 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 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Monday, December 08, 2014

Live Trees Bring Living 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 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Monday, December 01, 2014

Holiday Decorations for the Birds (and Other Critters)

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 an overwhelming number of holiday catalogs feature imaginative and festive (oh, and costly) 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 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Monday, November 24, 2014

Amaryllis: The Queen of Bulbs

In an earlier posting, Bloomin' Bulbs Beat Winter Blahs (Nov. 17, 2014), 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 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Monday, November 17, 2014

Bloomin' Bulbs Beat Winter Blahs

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 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Monday, November 10, 2014

Taters and Tubers for Thanksgiving

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 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Monday, November 03, 2014

Blooms & Branches & Berries, Oh My!

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 classic The Garden in Winter.

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Dwarf Citrus Are Big On Flavor & Fragrance

As we move into the shorter, chillier gray days of autumn and winter, few things brighten and warm a room like the sweet, rich aroma of lemon blossoms or the glow of maturing oranges among glossy, green leaves. Thanks to the widespread cultivation of dwarf citrus trees, any gardener with a bright window can enjoy all the sensory pleasures of lemons, limes, oranges, and more, all year long.

Like most fruit tree cultivation, where a branch or scion of a desirable variety of tree is grafted onto a sturdy rootstock, dwarf citrus trees are grafts of a normal fruit-bearing branch onto dwarf rootstock, which keeps the plant at a manageable size for summer patios and year-round enjoyment in your solarium.

Because the fruiting branch is from a full-sized tree, the fruits which develop are also full-size, and full-flavored. However, that also means that like a dutiful orchard manager, you will have to prune your tree periodically to keep it within bounds. Normally, pinching off growing tips will help maintain an attractive shape, which is preferable to letting the plant send out tall shoots requiring severe pruning.

In addition, always remove shoots or “suckers” which tend to pop out from the dwarf rootstock. Look for a diagonal scar running the trunk’s circumference around about six inches above the soil surface. Snip off any shoots below the graft union as those pesky shoots will sap energy from the desired plant, and produce, if at all, inconsequential or tasteless fruits.

The majority of dwarf citrus used as container or houseplants tend to grow between four and six feet tall, and do best in pots ranging from 12 to 16 inches in diameter, although some popular cultivars can be grown in containers as small as eight inches.

In milder climates, dwarf trees can reach up to nine to 12 feet when grown in halved whiskey barrels or redwood tubs. Around here, though, citrus must be taken indoors before any danger of frost, and most of us would rather not lug a several hundred pound giant into a standard family room.

To keep your dwarf citrus in check, you will actually borrow some techniques from the world of bonsai. Root pruning is usually required every three years or so, which will control overall growth, while also allowing you to replenish soil and soil nutrients. Without root pruning, you will have to continually repot your specimen until it becomes a behemoth.

To begin, carefully remove the plant from its pot and use a sharp knife or pruning shears (or even a pruning saw) to trim off several inches of root from around the sides and bottom of the root ball. Use a standard container soil mix to replace and reposition the plant at its previous height in the pot.

Incidentally, root pruning is often traumatic for many novices, who are more comfortable with watering and feeding their plants. But fear not, eventually everyone gets used to it, and your tree will continue to thrive and flourish for many years, possibly even dozens or more.

Ongoing care for your dwarf citrus requires plenty of bright light and even exposure. Be sure to slowly rotate containers every week or so. After all, no one likes a lopsided lemon tree.

Dwarf citrus prefer evenly moist soil. Do not allow the soil to completely dry out, and do not waterlog the soil or allow the plant to sit in standing water. Many practitioners consider an inexpensive moisture meter indispensable and as important as a good pair of pruning shears. Plan to water a bit more frequently than you might with other houseplants, perhaps every three to four days, especially during warm, dry weather.

Note that citrus are heavy feeders, especially as frequent watering will leach out water-soluble nutrients like nitrogen. It is recommended to use a fertilizer with a ratios two to three times higher in nitrogen than potassium and phosphorous (an N-P-K of 3-1-1). Be sure to use a complete fertilizer periodically to replenish essential micronutrients.

Of course, the most important element in dwarf citrus cultivation is selecting a plant that will intoxicate you with its fragrance and tickle your taste buds.

The choices are delicious in their own right, ranging from typical naval oranges, tangerines, lemons, true limes and grapefruits, to a host of hybrids with special characteristics. For the most part, growers have selected varieties specifically for container and indoor use which will do well in relatively cool environments. You do not have to replicate Floridian heat to achieve sweet and luscious fruit.

Among oranges, some of the most readily available and favored are Trovita, with a thin skin, which is equally prized for juice or eating. Satsuma oranges, sometimes considered a mandarine, like Valencia, are smaller, with an easy-to-peel fruit and a truly intoxicating aroma from spring-borne blooms which last up to a full month.

And while oranges might be the first citrus variety you are considering, spare a thought for the lemon tree. While most citrus bloom in the spring and produce fruit the following winter (or later), lemons actually bloom throughout the year, providing four seasons of fragrance, and year-round fruit. The most popular varieties include Lisbon, Eureka and Meyer, the latter of which is thought to be a cross between a sour orange and a lemon, and is perhaps the most popular variety of all thanks to its somewhat sweeter, slightly tangerine flavor.

Limes aren’t only for margaritas and gin-and-tonics! In addition to favorites like Bearss Seedless, one of the most intriguing offerings is Kaffir (or Thai) lime. In addition to tangy juice and a zesty zest, the glossy, dark green leaves of this variety can be chopped or julienned and used much like lemon-grass in Thai and other related Indonesian cuisine.

And while grapefruit are available, why not explore the exciting world of hybrids. For example, consider the increasingly popular Minneola Tangelos, or Honeybell, a cross between tangerines and grapefruit. This juicy, bell-shaped find offers a bright, reddish-orange skin, easily peeled like its tangerine ancestor, and sharing both a tartness and intense tangerine flavor.

Clearly, while these varied citrus trees may be dwarf in size, the selection, flavors, fragrance, and rewards of raising them are truly enormous.

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Friday, October 10, 2014

Great Gourds! Pumpkins & More

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 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Monday, October 06, 2014

Leafy Problems Become Healthy Lawns

Autumn is perhaps the most mellow and reflective season of the year. Shorter days encourage reading in the evening while crisp air and colorful vistas invite weekend hikes and trips to the countryside. Regrettably, too many people waste their precious weekends raking leaves into piles or shatter the quiet peace of sunny afternoons with leaf blowers. There is a better solution.

Rather than trying to rid your lawn of fallen leaves, you should actually consider leaving them where they are. It is nature’s way to recycle, after all. Certainly no one is raking up and bagging the leaves which fall in wooded parks and forests. Given a bit of time, all of the leaves are transformed by worms, bacteria and other organisms into rich humus, which will continue to feed trees, shrubs, and other plants year after year for millennia.

Your yard is simply an extension of the same natural process. Trees around your property draw nutrients and minerals from the soil, converting those elements into new leaves and branches. By raking up those leaves, you essentially short-circuit the natural cycle by which nutrients are returned to the soil. After a number of years, the soil will lose its fertility. In fact, carting off leaves and grass clippings is akin to strip mining, ultimately affecting the health of everything you are trying to grow.

Spreading costly fertilizers on your lawn may restore some nutrients, but not all of the vital minerals and organic matter needed for healthy, vigorous plants. Leaves, on the other hand, contain all of the nutrients and micronutrients your lawn needs. The trick is getting those leaves back into the soil without smothering your lawn in the process.

Enter the lawnmower. For the past ten years, almost all new lawnmowers sold have been mulching mowers. After decades of bagging clippings, a majority of homeowners have learned that it is best to “grasscycle” their lawn clippings when they mow. Clippings left in place quickly decompose and provide nutrients to keep the lawn healthy.

Your lawnmower can now do double-duty as a leaf-mulcher. Mower blades can easily shred whole leaves into small pieces, approximately one-tenth their original size. Your once-daunting bounty of leaves will disappear into a thin layer of tiny particles easily digested by worms and bacteria. In fact, a healthy earthworm population is capable of dragging a one-inch layer of organic matter down into their underground burrows in just a few months. Unseen by human eyes, they are diligently loosening and enriching your soil, and feeding the roots of your lawn for free. Perhaps you should think of your mower as a food processor for worms!

Begin your regimen of leaf-mulching by setting the mower to a normal three-inch height. Remove bagging attachments and block off the chute on a rear-discharge machine. Run your mower over the lawn while walking slowly, giving the mower blades plenty of time to shred up the leaves. Please note that mower-mulching works best when leaves are relatively dry and are no more than one inch deep. Do not wait until every last leaf has fallen before getting started.

If your mower has a side discharge chute, you will probably want to begin on the outside perimeter of your lawn, blowing your chopped leaves onto unmowed areas, and continue mowing inward. This will keep the leaf particles on the lawn, and even allow you to mow over them a few more times. Some savvy gardeners like to direct the discharge of shredded leaves into ground cover areas or under foundation plantings where organic matter is also welcome.

If your first pass over the lawn has left a significant quantity of whole leaves, go back over the leaves while mowing at a right angle to the first cut, perhaps walking even more slowly. Leaves take more work than grass, especially if they are somewhat damp.

There are other options and uses for some of your shredded leaves. For example, if your mower does have a bagging attachment, you might want to apply the shredded material as a mulch two to four inches thick under your trees and shrubs. Do not pile the mulch directly against tree trunks.

Shredded leaves can also be applied to other planting beds, such as perennial borders and herb gardens. Avoid applying mulch until after the first hard freeze. A two to three inch mulch layer will help maintain a uniform soil temperature all winter and protect tender root systems. The mulch blanket will also prevent frost upheaval caused by frequent thawing and refreezing, which is especially damaging to bulbs, tuberous flowers, and some half-hardy perennials.

Naturally, the leaf mulch will also feed your plants by recycling nutrients, conserve soil moisture during dry spells, and prevent the emergence of weeds.

You can also add your shredded leaves to a compost pile or bin. The smaller leaf particles decompose in about 75 percent of the time required by whole leaves, and you can further add a astonishing volume of shredded leaves into the bin, which is useful for properties with numerous mature trees. In addition, if you find that you are cutting some grass while running over the leaves, you are probably creating the perfect blend of materials to ensure an effective, fast-working compost pile. Your shredding efforts may even reward you with nutrient-rich compost ready for use in the Spring.

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Monday, September 29, 2014

Autumn: Turn Over a New Leaf

Glorious Autumn! Keat's season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. It is also (alas) the season of the rake. It seems that you spend the better part of your precious weekends just raking up leaves. And just when you have gotten them under control, along comes a brisk gust of wind, a sprinkling of rain, and your lawn is covered all over again. Groan! Time to drag out the rake once more.

Here is a solution to simplify your fall and improve the long-term health and vigor of your lawn, trees, and garden beds:

Mulch ado about leaves.
There are a large number of expensive, awkward, and sometimes useful products being hawked to suck up your leaves and turn them into mulch. There are blower-vacs which blow leaves into a pile which you can then suck up and shred. There are chipper-shredders with elephant trunks that also allow you to suck up and shred leaves, although you have to rake them into piles first. And lawn jockeys with disposable incomes can check out the over $1,200 self-propelled machines which act like gas-powered vacuum cleaners on your lawn (watch out for small pets).

Mower for less.
These contraptions may not be the solution for you. However, if you are like most homeowners, you may not have realized that your lawn mower is already a deluxe leaf mulcher in its own right. And perhaps the easiest way to deal with leaves is to mow them right back into the lawn itself. Forget back-breaking raking and bagging!

Please note that mower-mulching works best when leaves are relatively dry and are no more than one inch deep. Deeper "drifts" might need to be partially raked first -- or plan to run back and forth over the leaves several times. And do not worry if your model is not a dedicated mulching mower, any type of mower will do.

Start your do-it-yourself "mulchinator" by setting the mower to a normal three-inch height. Remove bagging attachments and block off the discharge chute on a rear-discharge machine. Then run your mower over the lawn while walking slowly, giving the mower blades plenty of time to shred up the leaves.

If your mower has a side discharge chute, you will probably want to start on the outside perimeter of your lawn and start mowing inward. This will keep the leaf-bits on the lawn, and even allow you to mow over them a few more times. Of course, some folks like to "blow" shredded leaves into ground cover areas, under foundation plantings, or into wooded areas, adding to the organic content of soils there, which is another option.

If your first pass over the lawn has left a significant quantity of whole leaves, go back over the leaves while mowing at a right angle to the first cut, perhaps walking even more slowly. Leaves take more work than grass, especially if they are somewhat damp.

Stay out of the gutter!
It is important not to blow whole or shredded leaves into streets, storm drains, or nearby streams. Those innocent-looking particles can create problems for sensitive aquatic life by suffocating plants, fish eggs, and insect larvae, clouding the water, tying up oxygen, and altering the stream's pH (increasing toxic acidity). And that is also why you should never rake leaves into the street or gutter: leaf leachate always ends up in your neighborhood stream.

Too many leaves?
The swirling mass of leaves may seem daunting at first, but the final particle size will be one-tenth of the original leaf. This will make it easily digestible by worms and bacteria. Skeptics often voice a concern that shredding leaves into turf areas will overwhelm and kill their lawn. Not at all! In fact, research at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania found that earthworms will actually drag a one-inch deep layer of organic matter into their burrows in just a few months, loosening and enriching your soil, and feeding the roots of your lawn for free.

Numerically, while you may imagine that all of those leaves will add up to far too much organic matter for your lawn, the fact is that 30 tall paper bags full of leaves, once shredded, will break down within a season to about one cubic yard of leaf mold or compost. Applied to your lawn as a topdressing, you would only be able to cover about 48 square feet (a six foot by eight foot patch). In fact, to topdress a lawn properly, most savvy gardeners have to import tons of commercial compost above and beyond the compost they make at home! Fear not: you will never have too many leaves or too much organic matter!

Your lawn needs leaves.
For decades, homeowners have bagged their grass clippings and leaves and sent them off to a landfill. And lawn chemical salespeople successfully and profitably sold the idea that healthy lawns needed bimonthly fertilizer and pesticide applications. Times have fortunately changed. The fact is that lawns and gardens can be maintained organically, for the most part, and without toxic inputs, just by recycling the natural materials already in place. When you bag up your clippings and leaves, you are short-circuiting the natural recycling process.

Think of the cycle this way: tree roots absorb water, minerals, and a host of nutrients from the soil. These materials are used to add girth to the tree trunk and boughs, set forth new branches, grow more roots, and grow leaves, flowers, and fruits or seeds. In a natural setting, such as a forest or woodlot, leaves, small twigs, blossoms, and fruits drop to the ground and slowly decompose, returning all of the original organic building blocks to the soil for future use.

What happens when you bag up leaves? How is that organic matter going to get back to the soil for the tree to use in coming years? You may think that by fertilizing your lawn you are returning everything the tree needs. Wrong! Of the more than one dozen major and minor nutrients that plants need to grow, how many are in your bag of fertilizer? And what about the organic matter that creates humus, the very soul of soil itself?

Bagging leaves and grass is equivalent to strip mining. The minerals, nutrients, and organic matter are continually stripped away year after year. Eventually, without those vital materials, your trees, your garden, and your lawn will start to suffer. It is time to undo this damage by getting that organic matter back into the soil. And you can easily start just by mowing your leaves into your lawn.

It's in the bagger!
There are other options and uses for some of your shredded leaves. For example, if your mower does have a bagging attachment, you might want to take the shredded material and start using it to mulch some of your trees and shrubs. This is also true for gardeners with some of the fancier shredding equipment. Apply up to four inches deep, and your mulch layer will also act as a blanket to prevent frost upheaval in planting beds, which is especially damaging to bulbs, tuberous flowers, and some half-hardy perennials. You will also be feeding and protecting your plants and preventing weed growth for almost a full year.

A compost pile or bin is another excellent half-way point for shredded leaves. Those smaller leaf particles break down in less than half the time of whole leaves, and you can fit a prodigious quantity of shredded leaves into your bin. Also, if you find that you are cutting some grass while shredding leaves, you are probably creating the perfect blend of carbon and nitrogen-rich materials to ensure a hot, fast-working compost pile.

Recommended chores.
Mulching leaves into lawns is just the first step toward a naturally healthy lawn and environment. You should also consider aerating your lawn by either renting a core-aerating machine (about $70) or hiring a lawn care firm ($75 and up depending on overall lawn size). Aerating breathes life into compacted soils and helps organic matter filter deeper into subsoils and root zones. You should also test your soil with a kit from your county or municipality's local Cooperative Extension Service (costs are about ten dollars) to determine proper nutrient application rates. Your soil test will also indicate the type and quantity of lime your lawn needs; local soils are naturally acidic. And don't forget: fall is the only beneficial time to consider feeding your lawn -- only use a slow-release or organic nutrient source to feed the soil and your lawn's roots all winter long.

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Primer on Autumn Lawn Care

Homeowners often make the mistake of thinking that the secret to a good lawn is lots of work in the spring. However, perhaps the most vital period of time for healthy turf is the fall, where proper feeding and care will result in a naturally lush and beautiful lawn in the spring, which will keep its green all year long.

Grasscycling for All Season Lawn Care

Healthy lawn care year-round starts and ends with grasscycling -- leaving those nutrient-rich clippings on the lawn when you mow. Do not be fooled by the old myth of bagging clippings when the weather turns nippy. Clippings can be left behind right up to the last mowing of the year. Worms will continue to pop out of their burrows and drag clippings deeper into the soil as long as soil is not frozen, and bacteria will continue to help break down the organic clippings even under a mantle of snow!

Grasscycling Means Leaf-cycling

As leaves fall onto lawn areas, your lawnmower can be used as a mobile chipper-shredder to run over the leaves and shred them into smaller particles. No raking or bagging required! You can continue to mulch leaves right into your soil all autumn long provided that the layer of fallen leaves does not exceed more than half and inch. It also helps if the leaves are primarily dry. Those colorful leaf “bits” provide much-needed organic matter for your soil. Soils that are organically well-fed are healthy soils which will easily grow healthy lawns.

Fall is Feeding Time

One of the major causes for turf disease and unhealthy lawns is overfeeding and fertilizing at the wrong time of year. Bad feeding practices and relying on synthetic “quick fix” fertilizers and lawn chemicals can have long term harmful impacts on your lawn and on the environment, especially groundwater and streams. To ensure a healthy lawn and environment, feed your lawn now and do it right.
  • Use your soil test results to determine proper application rates. If you haven’t tested your soil -- do it now! Contact your local Cooperative Extension Service office for a reliable five-ten dollar test kit.
  • Underfeed rather than overfeed; too much fertilizer leads to disease and thatch. Also, grasscyclers are already recycling a substantial amount of nutrients every time they mow.
  • Lawns should “eat” slowly. Avoid quick-release or water-soluble fertilizers. Generally, using a organic mix or low-analysis natural fertilizer (contents usually include bloodmeal, bonemeal, rock phosphate, and various manures), will provide plant roots will most of the nutrients they’ll require all year long. If synthetics are more readily available, make sure that the fertilizer is water-insoluble, or you’ll lose most of the nutrient benefit after the first rain.
  • Compost is a near complete meal -- and hefty dose of valuable organic matter -- for most lawns. You can use your own home-grown compost or purchase a commercial product, the most common being Milorganite, although many communities (and zoos!) often sell composted leaves and biosolids locally, in addition to various composted manure products. Compost can be spread over a lawn area as a topdressing about one-quarter inch thick.
  • Apply lime and other rock minerals, as indicated by your soil test. Normally, ground calcitic limestone is preferred over dolomitic lime, unless your soil suffers from a magnesium deficiency. Using ground rather than powdered lime will also ensure that the lime breaks down slowly during the winter and spring without washing off.

A Breath of Fresh Air

Aerating lawns is perhaps one of the most beneficial measures to ensure healthy soil and vigorous roots. Core aeration, which pulls plugs out of the soil, is the most effective method, and can be done by a lawncare contractor -- or by renting the equipment. The cost is usually the same either way. Aeration helps air reach organisms in the soil which break down organic matter and produce nutrients for the grass roots. It also allows organic matter, like leaf and grass particles or compost, to enter deeper into the plants’ root zones, improving soil and lawns all at once. The soil “plugs” also provide minerals for the soil surface.

Going to Seed

This is your last chance to get cool weather grass growing in bare patches. For trouble areas, it is best to roughen up the area with a rake, topdress with a thin layer of compost, and then apply the appropriate variety of grass seed and water evenly.

Remember that fall is the real beginning of the lawn care season. A little extra work now will allow you to enjoy those longer, warmer days of spring and summer a lot more next year.

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Monday, September 22, 2014

Making Good Scents With Indoor Plants

Tired of our artificially-scented and perfumed world, bubbling with pots of potpourri and plug-in air fresheners? A more natural choice to add aroma to our homes and offices can be found in an amazing assortment of plants which are as beautiful in bloom as they are richly laden with extraordinary fragrance.

The most popular fragrant plants for the gloomy days of winter are usually spring-flowering bulbs or corms, which are easily forced into bloom, sometimes within weeks of planting. Favorites include sweet-scented paperwhite narcissus, which can be grown in soil-less media like sphagnum moss, attractive pebbles, or even glass marbles. These and similar species can be stylishly arranged in exotic Asian cache pots, shiny copper trays, or homespun wooden baskets.

Paperwhites, despite their name, can also be purchased through catalogs offering single or double white petals framing a central cup of lemon yellow, gold, and orange, and providing varied intensities of aroma.

An undisputed champion of fragrance is freesia, another bulb, which blends the warm sweetness of paperwhites with a spicy citrus-like aroma. Freesia’s characteristic scent is so popular that it has unfortunately become one of the most overused fragrances in candles, sachets, bath soaps, lotions, and related personal care products. These synthetic versions are often cloyingly sweet and fail to capture the delicate nature of the flower itself. And while the traditional tubular flowers are a pale yellow, it is also possible to find plants with purple, pink, white, red, lavender, and orange blooms, as well as dwarf varieties, which can be grown without staking.

Hyacinths are undoubtedly one of the showiest and most pungent of indoor bulbs. While frequently associated with outdoor planting beds, mixed in with narcissus and tulips, hyacinths are readily grown in either containers or aptly named "hyacinth glasses" and can be found in shades ranging from deep to light blue, red, pink, gold, light yellow, and pure white. Typically, the largest mass of bloom is found in the exhibition Dutch hyacinths, which are more suited for forcing in a glass. French Roman varieties are best planted in a light soil medium and often produce several stalks of closely packed star-like flowers.

Incidentally, the notion of forcing bulbs in glass containers has become increasingly popular, perhaps even trendy, with paperwhites, where special “forcing vases” filled with some pebbles and water help focus more attention on the plant and its dainty blooms than on the container.

Lily of the Valley (Convallaria maialis) is one of the most sweetly scented plants available. It is not actually grown from bulbs but from rhizomes called “pips,” which can be set either into a soil medium or grown in pebbles and water like paperwhites. Its familiar aroma is rather much the mainstay of the soap and toiletries industry, although there is a more pleasant association in older legends in which the gentle fragrance is said to attract nightingales. Like hyacinths, rooted Lily of the Valley pips can be readily transplanted to the outdoor garden in spring after their blooms have faded.

Beyond the world of bulbs and pips, there are a great many traditional and unusual plants which can add color and fragrance to tabletops and sunny windowsills. One of the most common is the gardenia, which dramatically balances it bright, creamy blossoms against dark, glossy foliage. There are some 200 species of gardenia, but the most readily found is the common gardenia (Gardenia jasminoides), which grows as an evergreen shrub in southern latitudes, although gardeners in our area must maintain it as a potted specimen. While in bloom, a single plant can send its sweet odor through an entire house. However, the plant is rather sensitive to changes in humidity, temperature, soil moisture, and light, and will readily – and annoyingly – drop its waxy buds and sulk for the remainder of the season.

Another inspired selection is jasmine, a tropical plant which can be grown outdoors during warmer weather, but must be overwintered indoors, where its rich fragrance will fill a room and delight family members and visitors alike. Although there are scores of plants called jasmine, only some of them are true jasmines, belonging to the genus Jasminum, many others are jasmines in name alone, and there are almost as many synonyms for the most popular species as there are species overall. Be sure to order the jasmine you want by botanical name, if purchasing a plant on-line or from a catalog. Otherwise, let your nose be your guide.

Among the most exquisite olfactory candidates are angelwing jasmine (Jasminum nitidum), normally a 20 foot tall shrub with strongly scented pinwheel-shaped blooms, easily kept under control in pots or planters through regular pruning. Arabian jasmine (Jasminum sambac) is one of the most frequently sold species, and is the plant used in Asia and the South Seas to flavor tea. With proper care, this variety will bloom time and time again, gracing both indoor and patio spaces. Note that there are numerous cultivars of Arabian jasmine which can provide either simple, five-petalled starlike and glistening blooms, like “Maid of Orleans” or large, showy two-inch blossoms resembling small white roses, such as “Grand Duke of Tuscany.”

Another outstanding selection is pink or winter jasmine (Jasminum polyanthum), a twining subtropical vine with a soft fragrance, not as pungent as the Arabian or angelwing varieties, but noticeable and appealing. Flowers begin with pink-hued buds which open into small white flowers. The vining habit makes the plant a perfect choice for training on hoops or small trellises.

One of the most interesting non-jasmines is night jasmine (Cestrum nocturnum), also commonly called “Night Queen” or “Queen of the Night” in India. This fast growing evergreen shrub is actually native to the West Indies, and is widely, if not wildly, popular in many tropical regions. Night jasmine produces countless masses of light greenish-white or greenish-yellow flowers several times a year, which open only at night. The intoxicating fragrance from even a small, five-foot container grown specimen can reach for many hundreds of yards. Some Cestrum aficionados actually bring their plant indoors during summer evenings to fill their home with an aroma which seems to last throughout the day.

Madagascar jasmine (Stephanotis floribunda) is another popular non-jasmine. This familiar tropical vine is also commonly referred to as "Bridal Veil Vine" or "Wedding Plant," as the clusters of sweetly aromatic blossoms are frequently used by florists in wedding arrangements and bouquets. At home, Stephanotis can be grown in a pot with a trellis or other support, or trained as a hanging basket with frequent pruning. Those cuttings, preferably four-inch tip sections, can be readily propagated by sticking them into a moist rooting medium.

Naturally, there are fragrant plants which do not even pretend to be jasmines. Two of the most spectacular are fragrant Bouvardia, a Mexican plant which grows well in containers and provides clusters of aromatic white flowers in tight racemes, much favored in cut floral arrangements. Another is ylang ylang (Cananga odorata), an Indonesian native with greenish-yellow petals appearing in large clusters. The name means “flower of flowers,” and those allegedly seductive flowers are credited with everything from inducing hypnotic and euphoric states, to being a potent aphrodisiac. Most commonly this plant is known for the essential oil derived from the blossoms.

Finally, not all fragrant plants have to actively broadcast their scent. For example, scented geraniums (Pelargonium species) are easily grown indoors on windowsills and offer an unmatched array of botanical and culinary aromas and flavors, from rose and lime, to pineapple, ginger and nutmeg. The fragrance is easily released by lightly brushing against the foliage. Leaves can be used to flavor jellies, sugars, potpourris, and sachets.

Rosemary is one of the few culinary herbs which happily grows indoors. Just rubbing against the stiff needles releases an amazing aroma. The plant can be trimmed and grown as a miniature Christmas tree, or trained into other fanciful topiary shapes. You can also let the plant grow haphazardly on a sunny kitchen windowsill, where ends can be snipped-off for use in freshly baked foccacia.

In the end, why bother with spray can room deodorizers and pint-sized potpourri crock pots when you can fill your living space with real fragrances, brilliant blooms, and the quiet joy that living plants can bring?

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Fall -- And 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 2014, Joseph M. Keyser