A blog for people who are plant geeks, collectors or who are just bored, and looking for some inspiration. Matt Mattus is an American author, top 10 ranked garden blogger, plantsman, horticultural speaker, Hasbro futurist, visual designer NARGS president and random cross fitter.
Happy Valentines Day - which reminds me that our hearts should be focused on healthy vegetable gardening - why not consider growing our own from seed this year? Here is a pretty good reason why you might want to bother growing your own seedlings this year.
Tell me if this has ever happened to you. You decide to start your own tomatoes or peppers at home. You take time finding the perfect variety, you sow your seeds at the right time - not too early nor too late. You take all of the precautions needed. You set up a lighting unit. You buy a plant timer. You use a propagtion mat. You use the best organic potting soil. You monitor temperatures closely and even fertilize with a good organic fish emulsion.
Then, Just as the warmer spring weather arrives ...it happens.
You see some sixpacks of the same variety at your local Home Depot and they look million times better than your own plants.
Not able to help yourself, you them and begin to think "Why did I bother?"
All's OK, right? I mean, it was fun to try growing them anyway, right?
Yet here's the problem. Those plants from the garden center that look infinitely healthier than your skimpy seedlings are more like Russian Olympians drenched steroids.
These snapdragon and pepper seedlings in my greenhouse are being grown the old-fashioned way, Allowed to dry out between watering which helps their roots grow stronger and reduces the risk of mildew, and they have not been treated with any growth regulators so common with both of these crops elsewhere.
No some of you might be thinking "well, I'm OK with that. I get that these plants were probably coddled better than mine, that they were fed some special secret diet and offered life in a fancy greenhouse and all....". But no. That's not what happened.
It's notbecause the growers had access to better seed or better varieties than you could get. T
The answer is a a little more disturbing, and its one which few people are aware about. You've been seduced by healthy looking tomato plants because they've been treated with PGR's, or Plant Growth Regulators - chemicals that offer no benefit to the plant other than to make them appear stocky and thus look healthier.
These pepper seedlings are not a bushy and thick-stemmed as those found at the nursery, but I know that they havent been treated with growth regulators, and will soon be loaded with naturally induced flowers and fruit. I dont care if they need staking, I dont really want to eat any more chemicals.
Are these plants healthier (or less healthier) than those you can raise at home? No one is really all that sure yet. At least I think that this is the case after researching more for my book on vegetables and discovering that most every corporate seed supplier offers guidelines on how to apply growth regulators (not just on petunias, snapdragons and annual flowers as I had once thought) but for use on vegetable seedlings.
That bothers me to no end, and why doesnt anyone seem to know this?
Now you know me. I am not one who typically raises red flags especially about things like GMO's or any horticultural practice which seems to be under scrutiny today. Heck, I'm not even that innocent myself. Like many horticulturists, I support the use of some insecticides and even responsible use of neonicotinoids. I have a greenhouse. I get it.
Yet, I would never use any of these on crops which I am going to eat. That just doesnt seem safe at all. Right?
The guys at http://arborjet.comArbor Jet came out and treated out Hemlock trees with some serious insecticide, but in a most interesting way - injection. While not thrilled about using a neonicotinoid, I am smart enough to know when it is useful. I use them in the greenhouse only as a worst case scenario - scale on a rare tree or something like that. Injection with trees beats how this used to be treates 10 years ago - by spray and drench. This is specific and localized chemotherapy. And, the US Park Service used them too. Thanks ArborJet.
I had to struggle a bit this autumn as we had to make a big decision about a grove of Eastern HEmlock trees on our property. They've been suffering from an infestation of the Wolly Adelgid, with nearly every needle affected. They look like mealy bugs and the trees were scheduled to be cut down this comng spring, but I wanted to try one more thing. Injection.
The scary part was that the injection would include Imidacloprid. More about that in a later post but mind you, this wasnt easy to accept, but, with some research as guidanve by tree surgeons and those in the industry, I accepted that this was like chemo. On a warmish day in Novemberm our trees were injected with the pale pink fluid. A last-ditch effort to save 10 trees over 100 years old just to fight an attack of the Wooly Adelgid. It seemed worth the risk for a number of reasons, but since it had no contact with soil, and there appeared that there wouldnt be an irruption of winter finches (which woudl feed on the cones, yet again, there havent been any cone crops for about 5 years now), we decided to do it.
Our Eastern Hemlocks, which sit in a grove which has been there since 1900 sits just north, behind our greenhouse. The branches even hang over parts of the greenhouse which is disconcerting as well. After an exceptionally cold winter last year and a very wet summer, the adelgid population seems compromised a bit and some new growth on the branch tips encouraged us to try one last ditch effort to save these trees which were about to be cut down.
It was fascinating to watch the liquid be taken up into the trunk in just 30 mintues. Imidacloprid is deadly for insects, less so for humans and dogs - at least, that what the data says, and as a science geek I tend to trust it. We know this as sometimes I have to use it in the greenhouse. USed wisely, its effective a safe. But use it on a food crop? Never. Use it outside in the garden? Never. Maybe we might inject a lily bulb to fight the lily beetle but that's it. We keep honey bees, we know the risks.
Yet with plant growth regulators, its just not something I want sprayed on my vegetables. It's bad enough that they use it on our annual flowers which I also prefer to raise myself from seed if only becasue of this fact. Im sick of buying apparantly stocky cosmos or zinnias only to have to stay dwarf and stocky in the cut flower garden. I was tall snapdragons and cosmos that are 5 feet tall like in the gardening magazines.
The ArborJet proprietary system was fascinating. The liquid enters the tree slowly, but one can see the tree actually drinking it up. Like a flu shot. Seeing it all happen in real life reminded me that these trees are living objects. I feel confident that this booster shot will help the trees overcome this infestation .
All that said, I believe in the proper use of chemicals when nothing else works or when an organic method proves to be ineffective. I'm also a big supporter of organic food, organic food production and never ever use insecticides in the vegetable garden. I support and buy organic produce whenever possible and encourage others to do so as well. It's all a balance, and we all have to make our own decision on where our ethical line is. Mine is on food crops.
Tomatoes, pepper snad eggplants are the seedlings most often treated by plug growers and vegetable transplant growers with something called PGR's or Plant Growth Regulators. It's hard to find even a single commercial grower or nursery who doesnt use these chemicals on our vegetable seedlings. Should this concern you? I'm not sure yet.
Yet while writing my new book, which my publisher told me this week while I attended an international sales meeting for it that I could and should start promoting - the Mastering the Art of Vegetable Gardenings (Dec. 2018), I've been spending days in horticultural society libraries and universities researching, discovering some disturbing trends.
A gypsy moth lays it ugly egg case last July on some of our birch trees. While I know an outbreak is coming this year, there is little I can do about it, I could spray these tres but that seems wasteful, dangerous and not worth the risk to both the environment and this natural outbreak. I was fascinated however by titmice and chickadee's who have been cacheing sunflower seeds into these cases for eating later.
I support much of big agriculture. As a plantsman, I am not against GMO's (not yet) or even the big seed companies like Ball Seed, Sakata, and Pan American. I support plant breeders, and much of the industry involved with horticulture, but there is one thing which concerns me more than non-GMO food. And that is the use of PGR's or Plant Growth Regulators on food crops. Right now, only one is approved for use in a very limited way, but others are coming down the pike if the commercial trade magazines are correct, and most growers are asking for more approval for their use on vegetable transplants for spring sales.
Don't get me wrong, Ball, Sakata, and Pan American are very good companies and I trust that they are being very safe of what they suggest their growers do, but its not in their hands really. They are merely offering how growers can optimally raise a crop that will be, well, perfectly sellable. A grower could choose to raise something organically too, or just in a healty, reasonable way with as few chemicals as needed.
This is more a statement about the entire industry and where it is moving to, often in a response to what we the consumer is telling them through our purchasing habits. In many ways, we are to blame. We who tend to buy the larger tomato plant (albeit far too early in the spring) at the local Lowes or Home Depot when the pansies are out. We who by the larger eggplant in a 1-gallon pot just because it has a fruit on it already, or we who choose to buy the thicker-stalked seedlings over a packet of seeds.
Some blame does fall on the growers too. But then again, they are in business and need to justify their sales. If no one is buying seedlings from the grower who raised his or her plants without PGR's, what choice do they have?
In a sense, this is virtual product design, and we the consumer are informing the growers what we want. Why would they grow anything else? OF course the big retailers should know better, but lets be honest - the buyer from one of these big box stores more often than not knows little about agriculture or plants aside from a baseline knowledge that 'tomato plants must be planted out in the spring" and "Oh good, we have super healthy looking tomatoes that are much better than our competitor has.". 'Maybe I'll get a good bonus so that I can go golfing this spring".
Sorry, Mr. Plant Buyer. But now that I'm not wearing a polo shirt with a corporate logo on it, I can say it.
I've been immersing myself in reading the trade magazines for the industry and a couple of the leading greenhouse management magazines have featured articles about potential safety concerns with the use of Plant Growth Regulators and their use by growers on vegetable transplants. This irritated me and concerned me as I read on, not only because now I have proof that those stocky tomatoes were chemically induced, but here is what growers seemed to be complaining about - - that there wasn't enough research about their worker's safety. They were more concerned with how their employees should apply the product - the proper equipment to use and how to ventilate their greenhouses better to avoid overexposure.
Hmmm. I care about them too. How about stop using them?
Sooooooo......What about us the consumer? Because we're eating the plants.
What about the lady who was buying parsley at the Home Depot or Lowes and who might cut some off and eat it when they got home? What if she picked that green tomato?
The chemical companies are kind-of covered here, for they provide some very strict rules and guidelines for wholesale growers on how soon they can spray a crop before it goes to market - but do I trust that 22 year old told to spray his bosses greenhouses on a Friday afternoon that he is going to avoid certain crops?
What about drift? I asked a friend of mine who works for one of the largest plug growers outside of Boston if they pay attention to what annual or vegetable gets sprayed, and he laughed. "The entire bench or greenhouse is just sprayed." They'll avoid some crops which are sensitive, but mostly everything gets treated the same way. Certainly all of the peppers and tomatoes.
The crazy thing is at first I didn't react much about this. Plant Growth Regulators don't even really scare me all that much. I never liked their use on ornamental annuals, but since I prefer to raise my own snapdragons and other annuals which are most commonly sprayed, I could work around it. beleive me, I too have been seduced by ridiculously healthy snapdragons only to realize that my skimpy seedlings out performed them.
Starting ones own seeds remains the best way to maintain crop safty at home. WHich reminds me - this week I started my sweet pea seeds. Spring is on its way.
I don't even mind their use on some disposable crops all that much . I'm a sucker for a super mum with a million buds on it formed into a perfect mound - I know that it isn't natural, but "it's a thing". I get it. Just leave my tomatoes alone. I know just as I know that some Hollywood boobs are fake (it's true, some are), that tomatoes this husky just aren't natural. Some muscles aren't real either, you know. The same goes for hair, so I've been told.
So what are PGR's?
Plant Growth Regulators are chemicals used to treat many growing plants, especially potted plants. "Chemical's" is a dirty word for many, but not for me. Still, as chemicals, they must be used wisely. There are good uses for many of these PGR's. Science is an amazing thing when you really look into it, and PGR's have proven innovative in many agricultural uses, from research to plant breeding to saving endangered species. While there are many different types, the most common ones used are those which control plants through cell mutation. As one ad in a trade magazine states: (about the only one which is approved for use on vegetable seedlings called - Sumagic, "Controlling Cellular Mutation makes the plant more desirable to the seller and to the buyer.".
Lettuce should never be treated with growth regulators, yet more often than not, they are resulting in what looks like healthy seedlings. Even if it helps performance, who would want to eat that?
The fact is growers have been using PGR'ssince I went to agricultural college in the late 1970's, and early 80's (yes, I'm that old). The question is are they safe today? Classed as pesticides by the US government the advice clearly strict for those applying the sprays, yet oddly the only articles I could find in trade magazines are those regarding safety concerns - not for us, the consumer, but for those humans in the 'greenhouse who are actually spraying the PGR's. Obviously they are handling stronger concentrations of the chemicals and the risks would be higher, but still, there are risks. Right? Nothing here was making me feel any better (and I have a pesticide applicators license).
Call me crazy but while I'm slightly OK wearing a space suit to spray for an outbreak of scale, something in me gets nervous when I have to wear gloves to my elbows, suit up head to toe with an aspirator, goggles and a hood just spray my tomato seedlings.
I would encourage any home gardener to sow their own seedlings of every vegetbale to ensure that they are getting the best quality and health benefits from their garden. Even lettuce seed sown outdoors in early spring will look smaller than nursery grown plants, but they will grow into large and healthy plants as soon as the weather warms. This is natural.
Even more concerning was a secondary worry expressed more than a few times in articles by growers that "the use of PGR's might also raise a red flag about food safety as little research has been done on retention and residue on the foliage and fruit of sprayed transplants". All this regarding their use on the three vegetable crops most often treated with PGR's - tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants."
You might be wondering why do growers bother to use PGR's then?
Well, they do make plants look much nicer. I get that, and, plants are a product, and it's a competitive business. If I was a wholesale plug grower or a finished liner grower I imagine that might have to use PGR's just to remain competitive. Tomato plants are a big business and no grower can afford to lose an account like Walmart or Home Depot or they will go bankrupt. The thing is, these growers wont go out of business if we -- the consumer-- begin to care a little bit more about things that are important, and not gluten, GMO's and fat-free junk. (And yes, it doesn't escape me that I these chemicals are used primarily on 'the nightshades' -- but I don't buy that diet argument either Sorry Elizabeth).
Is the solution here that there needs to be some regulation. I don't know. That seems silly, yet someone needs to be responsible. If research data prove that PGR is safe? Then I would be OK with that too. I trust science. I dont give a hoot if something is non-GMO yet that logo now appears on tomatoe plants in big green type. Who wants another logo uselessly applied to our seed labels? We need to remain rational here. Can we just stop using PGR's on veggies? That might be nice. That's going take education, and maybe another book and documentary by Michael Pollan. Who else would we trus
Home raised seedlings still require some attention, more often than not home growers default to being too 'natural' only using fish emulsion or randomly using a fetilizer becasue it sounded safer without any knowlege of what their particular crop really needs for nutrients. Always do some research yourself. Trust the research univerisites first before - dare I say it, blogs or articles in magazines. Most repeat bad information. If you only knew the contradictions I've run against researching my book! (you will know about them soon enough!)
I've spent time in greenhouse ranges over the past year, some which are very responsible even though they have dozens of acres under glass. One even impressed me with how they were moving towards more organic or natural controls on insects which were very progressive and interesting. I sense a movement with many growers to a more responsible use of chemicals.
PGR's like Sumagic or Uniconazole do have some online guidelines which are very strict, you can look at them here. The chemical companies provide very strict guidelines on controlling the amount used on vegetable plants,..
I ordered my tomato seeds today, and even an old dog like me has learned new tricks.
I know - I overshared a bit in my last post. Thanks to everyone who writes be both personally and in comments - I'm good. Really. Just felt that I needed to kick-start myself somehow, and maybe sitting at the keyboard and allowing it all to flow out was part of the process. Anyway - it worked. I spent much of the weekend planning the summer garden and working on my book.
Tomatoes. I've neglected them, lately. Only grew a few last year (30 or so plant, which is 'just a few' for me, most of which I have to admit didn't do very well, which is surprising as it was a very good tomato year last year (very little Late Blight). I realized what my problem was half-way through the gardening season - I didn't do my homework, and I took a risk trying a bunch of heirlooms which I wasn't familiar with. Big mistake. Here is how it all happened.
First, I was writing my book so needed lots of space for other veggies that I knew I wouldn't be able to find elsewhere - like 15 varieties of okra, lots of melons, dried beans, and odd cucumbers from Tibet. I didn't want to ever have to buy a vegetable from a market and photograph it for my book (thankfully, that didn't happen - and believe me, I just saw another new vegetable gardening book this week where some of the photos look as if the author just bought veggies at a supermarket and photographed them as if they grew them. Really, if I see asparagus spears shoved into the ground in an attempt to make look as if they were growing there, I'll flip. Oh God, get off of the soapbox Matt, right?
Once again, my older brother mentioned that "I didn't think that you actually grew any vegetables. I thought you only grew flowers?
Oh Boopy. I love you and although I know that you don't know what a blog is, or what. a botanic garden is, and that you never use "the computer', so how would you know?
But I mean, really?
I grow vegetables as well as proudly grow those cut flower sweet peas that you roll your eyes at. Get over it bro.
(I didn't really say that. We never fight.).
Of course I grow flowers. I grow, well, everything, right? Don't you? Does anyone else have this pereption problem?
I showed my brother some pages from my book over Christmas, and I think he's beginning to understand it more now. I mean, it shouldnt me hard - he's raised vegetables his entire life But I think the scope of my book frightened him. Especially when I showed him all of the varieties of artichokes arranged in a big olive oil Jar that I brought back from Provence - set out in the middle of an artichoke field with Joe holding an armload of artichoe stems, and then a page with the dozens of varieties available, and then that page with the step-by-step images of plants I grew and then, the results - full-sized artichokes worthy of any of those from California, but these were from Massachusetts.
"See?" I said, "These you can grow right there in your raised beds in Mansfield beteween your in ground swimming pool, your New England Patriots flad pole and your shiny McMansion".
(Hey, we are STILL brothers, after all). Be real.
Then I turned the page to the step-by-step images.
"well" He said. "just don't make it too geeky".
TOmato seedlings last April. Yes, it is far too early in much of the country to start planting tomatoes, but it isnt too early to order ones seed. The really good varieties will be sold out.
Funny he said that, because it's what my editor keeps saying too after he saw some sample chapters for those artichokes, then cardoons, and then - celtuce.
"sooo.....you still are going to cover things like tomatoes and peppers, right?"
"Yes. Yes, I am". I said
There goes my page count.
Looks like I'll have to save some content for another book maybe. I hope not, but I don't want to compromise my vision which is what many authors do. I mean, I understand the realities of the market, but what I am trying to create here is a really useful book, not another 'easy-to-grow-square-foot-gardening-type-pf-book. This book is for the serious home vegetable gardener who really wants to master raising beans or corn at home. How to master unusual vegetables or even common ones if need be. It should answer why pH matters, and what fertilizer should one really use and when. Things like that. I've been looking for a book like this - like the Julia Child's The Art of French Cooking, but for vegetable gardening, is how I pitched it.
It cant be distilled down to "30 easy meals for weekday crock pots". I won't let that happen. Maybe it won't. Fingers crossed. They havnt really seen anything year.
We'll see how it goes next month when I submit the rest.
My tomatoes don't get planted into the ground until early June, when our soil warms up to near 70 deg. I've even sown seed directly before and the plants raced back large seedlings from the Home Depot. Soil temperature is key. How many of you use a soil thermometer? Most commerical growers do.
SO-- my book. My hope is to introduce step-by-step images for more unusual veggies especially for those which few people grow - like Lima beans, Okra, Bitter Melon, Luffa, Parsnips.As for the common veggies like beans and yes, tomatoes, well, it looks like I need to touch on those deeper as well.
I suppose that I was being conscious and felt that I need to respect what information is already out in the marketplace for vegetable growing books Do any of you really need to know how I raise string beans, zucchini or tomatoes? I assumed that most vegetable gardeners already know how to plant the most common vegetable in the vegetable garden, or am I wrong? And, I very well could be wrong, for even I screwed up epically with tomatoes this past year.
With thousands of tomato varieties now available, why limit yourself to the names you know? But be careful - for looks isnt everything. I still buy the rainbow, but look first to the flavor profile before I look at the color. First look for flavor, then for type (Beefsteak, cherry, pear, etc) then for use - sauce and stuffing tomatoes dont need to be sweet and flavorful, it's often OK to choose a variety which is bland or firm with pulp, others, may need to be acidic and low in sugar. Know what your ultimate use is.
I skipped sowing tomatoes last spring, as I knew that I would need space in the greenhouse for more unusual crops for my book. Besides, I could find my favorite varieties at local garden centers or at plant sales. I wasn't worried about finding Striped German's and Prudens Purples. I can even find Green Zebra's at the Walmart garden center now.
But as luck has it, planting plans were altered In early June just after Joe and I drove up to Vermont to scout out some other sources for other vegetables that I needed. We stopped at Walker's Farm Stand a place I had heard of through Wayne Winterrowd's books but never found a reason to take the 2 hour drive to visit.]
Upon pulling into the parking lot a couple of customers and a worker there actually recognized us, which was funny - blog followers are everywhere, I am convinced, so once I was able to ditch the inevitable paparazzi and sign a few autographs (kidding, but close - really), we shopped.
It was late in the day and the place was about to close.
Walker's was, which I didn't know, known for pre-started heirloom tomato plants - they had individual pots of over 250 heirloom varieties! So many that Joe and I instantly both entered plantamorphicparalysis or more accurately, Horticultimania - you know, that condition which afflicts only plant people when they become overwhelmed by awesome selection.
The same thing happens with a few female friends I know, at pop-up Manolo store sales (a couple of male friends, too).
The problem was, they had only one laminated list which was typewritten, with a single-line description along the lines of "bright orange with a tart flavort:, for each variety, and it was chained to a bench. There was a woman who kept warning us that "Boy's - we're closing in 5 minutes you know" so that didn't help with anything except with the volume of plants we were grabbing. And grab, we did. You do what you have to do in such situations.
Quickly, I snapped at Joe "Just pick out 10 of your favorite names and I'll grab 10 names that I like. The only rule is to not choose a variety that you've heard of before."
So we grabbed ones with interesting Russian names or anything with 'Pineapple or Peach' in it. If it was a black anything, we grabbed it. If it said 'blue' or 'purple' that too.
Stop judging me! You would do the same thing. They were only about $3.00 each (I think, really, I don't remember), but they weren't $7.00 or anything near the price of a single 4 inch fancy Proven Winners type of annual.
With this strategy, we would surely end up with some very interesting choices. The 'Big Beefsteak types' and "Green Zebra's were varieties that are not rare, and I could find those anywhere, even at Walmart.
For years I have grown tomatoes, both heirlooms, and new hybrids but after a disaster last year, I discovered that all tomatoes -heirloom or not, are not created the same.
As I said, space was limited so I only added a few more plants of black-fruited ones that I did start in the greenhouse, believing that I had a pretty good selection of both colorful and hopefully, flavorful tomatoes. Like most gardeners, I kept my fingers crossed that 2017 might be a good year for tomatoes and a bad year for Phytopthora infestans - the dreaded 'late blight' that can turn a bed of tomatoes into a wicked moldy mess of dead leaves and fruit by August.
As it turned out, it was a decent year for tomatoes, and it seems that I had everything in order. Three new bee hives were busy pollinating, lots of sunny days, and I was home so I could water and fertilize, prune, train and stake almost every day, but few tomatoes were forming, and the ones that were beginning to look uninteresting.
Amy goes into great detail not only about growing tomatoes, but lists many in here book each with their name, their synonyms (and there are many of those, so it helps with the confusion that exists between many heirloom varieties as the names were handed down, shared and traded, often changing along the way.
With my tags in hand, and gradually learned that each of the tomatoes we bought from that massive list in Vermont had indeed a great name, but the quality rating in her book confirmed my fears, In fact, I don't think that we had a single tomato variety worthy of a home garden.
I rarely plant tomatoes directly into the open soil without mulch anymore, but sometimes I need to. If so, I plant new varieties bred for disease resistance and hybrid vigor.
For example, rushed as we were, we both grabbed a healthy looking seedling of a variety that had the name 'Alberta Peach', an heirloom peach fuzz coated variety with very fuzzy leaves and enormous leaves. In Amy's book, I began to find varieties listed which began to excite me. 'Pink Peach, Flavor: 'Peachy keen' , Amy writes. That sounds good. A variety called 'Yellow Peach'. Flavor: 'Excellent and well balanced.' OK, that's good too,
Then'Peach Blow Sutton', Flavor: Excellent, cool and refreshing "tomato-lite flavor". OK, not sure what "tomato-lite" is, but I can go for that (unless it was supposed to be 'tomato-like'? Then, who knows?).
'Peche', a variety from 1891 with at flavor description of: "Good, mildly sweet and refreshing". Yes.
Joe picking the last of last year's tomatoes. A bit of late blight, but it was nearly October.
I could not find 'Alberta Peach', but while perusing the index, I found a variety called 'Elberta Girl', and began to think that maybe the label was misspelled. Sure enough, under the synonyms which Amy so thankfully lists for each variety found that another name for this tomato was 'Elberta Peach'. Nice. Then I read one. First of all, it really isn't an heirloom. Bred by tomato guru Thomas Wagner, no stranger to tomato enthusiasts, he introduced it in the 1983 Tater Mater catalog (along with some of his other varieties like 'Green Zebra', which all shared characteristics similar to heirloom types.
The description in the 1985 catalog for Elberta Girl was "Red and Yellow striped fruit with a light, peachy fuzz. The rest of the plant has a dusty miller look with greyish-white fuzz all over it. That explains why it looks like an older variety which I had grown before appropriately named 'Angora'. That might be a good thing, as not only are angora-type tomatoes lovely in the garden, they are more believed to be more resistant to tomato hornworm.
In Amy's book 'The Heirloom Tomato' I then read something that made my heart sink. Elberta Girl, Flavor: "A juicy hardball. The skin is waxy" (my spellcheck just wanted to change Hardball to Hairball, which may be a more definitive description.).
But it's not over, Amy goes on... "Bypass the striped fruit of Elberta Girl-unless you want a hood ornament".
PRactically the worst reviewed tomato in her book. Why the Hell did someone name this 'Elberta Peach? And why is anyone selling it?
Oh, Amy. Where did I go wrong?
Every summer we host tomato tasting parties, that is until last year. Many friends from California to the Netherlands are familiar with these dinners and some plan visits for late August and early September. Yum!
I guess I should have read every single entry in your gorgeous book and not be distracted by the beautiful photos byVictor Schrager.
So I did. Today. All of the varieties I grew last year had their flavor profiles and brix numbers in their descriptions, and briefly, they were Flavor:
Black Plum, Flavor, "Bland" King Humbert, Flavor "Bland" Brown Flesh, Flavor: Fair to good" Caro-Rich, Flavor "Fair to non-descript' Black Prince, Flavor: "Poor" The list went on."non-existent", "on the acidic side","mildly pleasing" at best.
I am not kidding here, and although I know this list is somewhat subjective, it's also not as if Amy doesn't know her tomatoes. Amy's husband Cary Fowler, Ph.D., the former Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust and instrumental in the creation of the Svalbard Global Seed Bank in Norway. Amy herself is a noted plantswoman with many accomplishments; author of four books on vegetables, three of which have won American Horticultural Society's Book of the Year awards. Amy is also co-chairman of Board at the New York Botanical Garden. She's had tomatoes names after her, she's named tomatoes, and believe me - I've been a guest at her upstate New York farm, and she's an incredible cook.
When the skills of a serious scientist and serious gardener combine - in a kitchen, something tells me that they would know how to judge the flavor quality of a tomato. Let me put it this way: Gregory Long, President of the New York Botanical Garden describes her as 'perhaps the world's premier vegetable gardener.", and I have to agree. Joe and I have spent hours in her fields of melons, squashes, peppers and tomatoes.
Clusters of tomatoes ripen in a beautiful way, from the bottom to the top, but we often nevert appreciate the coloring until the winter when we discover a photo like this.
I went on to read then what tomatoes I should have grown, and while it quickly became a long-ish list or nearly 30 heirloom varieties, each were described as being 'Excellent" in flavor, and a few as "sublime", "Sumptuous', "perfection, with both highest sugar and acid". I eliminated any rated as "good" or "sweet and nutty", "balanced" or even "Good to Excellent", clearly, I've been spooked.
Every year find the photos of tomato harvests from previous years, and it's fun to look at one's notes and the colors to see what worked, and what didn't. This shot is from 4 years ago, and with no notes, I cant remember now what varieties I had.
I am not going to share all of the varieties that I ordered tonight, as many get sold out quickly. Amy does list sources, and there are many, in the back of her book. A couple here I will share:
Tomato Bob's and Totally Tomatoes, are two that I recommend aside from the sources we already know. Each offers hundreds of tomato varieties as well as other vegetables. If you want the full list I suggest that you get Amy's book. It wouldn't be right for me to post them all here, besides, the list is too long.
I have no problem sharing my sources, however, if you think that will be helpful, I can write that list up in the next post - just let me know in the comments sections, sometimes there are secret sources that escaped someone, but most of the time I just assume everyone knows everything.
With thousands of 'heirloom' tomatoes out there, even the most experienced can get confused. What I've learned is to not trust the names, to not trust that all 'heirlooms' are indeed old tomatoes, and that just because the big seed companies carry a pretty..
Time to get out of a mid-winter January funk. A record crop of Meyer lemons in the greenhouse might help.
It's been tough. I mean, I expected this. Book deadline looming and I just started writing. Even though I lost my job last winter I was fortunate to have a severance package, but it runs out in a month. I'm not ignorant to the fact that I am still quite fortunate, but I also know that changes are on the doorstep, and maybe I haven't prepared enough for them (hello? Health insurance?). Ive been trying to squeeze in doctor appointments and dental work before March.
I usually like January too - not only do I love snow, it's my birthday month. I should mention that I've officially reached that time in my life when it's like "birthdays? Really? I'm not talking about it.
Then there is this funk which is probably just a combo of everything. Not to mention Post-Holiday Diets, the unusually cold and snowy weather we've been getting here in the Northeast (bomb cyclone and the coldest weather in over 100 years).
This all seems to have manifested itself into a "might-as-well-just-wear-sweatpants-all-day-long-and-watch-Netflix" mentality.
I have no interest in opening mail. In ordering seeds, or even for looking at nursery sites. I've kind-of lost interest in these things. I dont think that it's depression really, more like the fact that I feel as if I've grown everything and I cant find something new to be interested in. At least, that's what I'm telling myself.
I am feeding the birds which is begining to really sound like a very old-man thing - (don't say it). Still, I'm not doing much more. Its really only a function. Thistle feeder is out again, dump more in. I'm not 'watching' the birds, which is probably worse now that I think about it. Guilt feeding.
They eat alone, (which they probably like).
I had little problem writing for the book however, so I suppose that is a good sign. Sitting in my office with the snow falling outside has been one of the most favorite things to do. Yet my problem still seems like that I don't feel like working, or not working for that matter don't dont feel like buying plants, nor watering the ones I have anymore either. Nothing seems interesting anymore, and I've lost confidence in what I am doing.
This week our weather seems to have entered another phase - bit milder (fingers-crossed that it sticks). With these more average temperatures (highs near freezing and lows in the 20's) much of the drama from the early weeks of January has passed. I even am beginning to think about the future more.
I actually sowing a bit of seed today -some flats of mesclun. I even smelled the first whiffs of the Sarcococca hookeriana in the greenhouse (which we need to grow in a pot here in Massachusetts - don't taunt me Oregon or North Carolina!).
I'm good with the potted semi-tender shrubs like Sarcococca because under glass on a snowy, January day the greenhouse smells just like Tahiti (OK, more like early spring in the Himalaya - whatever...). It warms my soul and I kind of need that lately. At least it provided some hopefulness that I'll 'like it all' again.
Some casualties from the cold include this Canarina canariensis, but after following lots of chatter on the Pacific Bulb Society newsgroup, its bulb-like root may be OK. Many say that I should plant this tender geophyte that has gorgeous orange bell-shaped flowers like in this post, in the ground in my greenhouse, and it might do better. I'm going to try this. I need something to do.
A few freezes didnt hurt the South African bulbs. I kept the soil dry through most of January, which helps the cells expand in case there is a hard freeze. We had the coldest weather in over 100 years with a week of night temps below -12° F.
My book on vegetable gardenings is underway, mostly photo editing and writing at this phase. So, that has been my focus - choosing the best pics, researching at the library at the horticultural society and writing.
The cyclamen are sturdy fellows, able to withstand some very frosty nights with no harm. As long as the roots don't freeze the more tender species like C. graecum, I'm OK. I was able to fertilize them this week on my first visit out the greenhouse this year,.
South African bulbs really don't seem to mind the cold and the wet. These Babiana fragrans may bloom by springtime. As you can see, I never cleaned up the foliage from last season. It's very fibrous and tough and needs scissors to remove it in when the pot is dormant in mid-summer. I figure that this is what happens in the wild (there are no baboons out there cutting the dead foliage down, just digging and eating the bulbs). The iris-like flowers will be pretty though in a few weeks.
Citrus like these Calamondin oranges are blooming, even though half of the plant died from frost.
Other citrus are just not handling this winter all that well. This is what is left of my big Kumquat tree. Not a victim of frost however, but of a misplaced electric space heater.
Tropaeolim - tjhe vining, high-elevsation tuberous types from the Andes seem to relish this weather though. They look so tender and frail, with thread-like stems yet after the hot, summer dormancy, take off covering little trellis' in just a month - blooms will soon follow.
Tuberous Tropeolum grow from round tubers like potatoes. Here is a new species I am growng - T. ciliatum, a tuber that I acquired from a collector in September. Its growth is still small and weak. I think that it will appreciate being moved to a sunnier spot in the greenhouse now that it is getting warmer in there.
Another tropeolum species T. tricolor looked completely dead, and I feared its late emergence meant that something ate the bulb, but it was just last winters growth that I hadn't cleaned up in the summertime (see a trend here?). Not watered since May, I noticed a bit of thread-like growth earlier this week, and after carefully removing the dead foliage found these new stems twirling around.
Last weekend the sun came out, so after journeying out into the greenhouse - sweatpants and all - I coudl see that most of the Dutch bulbs and South African bulbs were emerging. I moved them all to a sunny sand bed, watered them and in just a few days, things have come back to life.
Scilla messeniaca a lesser-known scilla is beginning to show its buds.
The camellias that were planted in the ground always seem to bloom well even in the coldest winters. One snowy night in a blizzard two weeks ago the gas man wanted to see what I had in the greenhouse around 2 am, but I told him that it wasn't pot - but I could tell by his expression that he didn't believe me so, I shown a flashlight through the frosty glass and this thing was illuminated. He said "Wow, what the Hell is that?". "Not pot, I replied."
Camellias in pots are hardy too if the roots dont freeze. More sturdy than the insulating bubble wrap it seems.
The South African plants are remarkable cold hardy. This Erica 'Winter's Flame' is just starting to bloom.
Narcissus cantabricus, a native North African narcissus species blooms early in the greenhouse sand bed. It is sweetly fragrant - like cottoncandy (which reminds me - when was the last time I smelled cotton candy? It's sweetly scented like a vanilla candle from Target.).
If I was to grow one Nerine, it would be this one - N. alata or N. undulata. I have six stems in bloom this year. It too didnt seem to mind a few light frosts in early January.
The chili peppers didnt like the frost. And while many people keep some chili pepper plants from year to year for a while (like Chiltepin type), these probobly wont make it. I do have some Chiltepin and Tepin pepper plants in the house, however.
The biggest citrus I have is a massive tub planted with a Mandarin orange tree. It was hit by the blast of the propane furnice, and I fear that it wont recover.
Moving forward, I have all hopes that I am moving out of this funk I'm in. No worries, I'm a pretty positive guy and maybe I just need a challenge. I can't tolerate 'meh' for long.
You're probably thinking that I am just depressed. Maybe - just a little, but most likely I'm not sleeping because I'm scared, bored and for some reason not motivated because of a combination of all of those things - which is probobly completely normal, right?
After all - this is a big life change I'm going through over the next few momnths. With my severance runnings out in march health insurance is my greatest concern (Cobra?). IT seems that there is no shortage of freelance projects and consulting on my doorstep, but just how much and how fruitful or consistant it will all be, I dont know. I dont do well with inconsistancy - you know, used to that pay check every two weeks.
SOrry for thinking aloud here, but if you've read this far, you can probably see that this is just like therapy for me. Social therapy.
I've never collected an unemployment check in my life either, but ick - I may have to. I just feel like a failure too I guess.
Yet I promise to not let things get to me too much, this blog which I thought that I would have so much time to redesign and improve, will still go on. I need to move forward and think about the garden again - and what's next on the horizon for my projects.
I have jsut started thinking about my annual 'special projects' list, which is a bit overdue.
I am thinking about gladiolus again, a genus I have been putting off for a while now because dahlias got in the way - there are so many lovely crosses if you've even attended a gladiolus society show you know what I mean. Then there are fuschias to try again, but raising them in a different way - training them as standards or as large tubbed specimens, and then perhaps exploring how to create a mini-cut flower garden at home, designed to offer cut flowers for every week of the summer and fall, a mini-flower farm, if you will.
Last year I was reminded of how great coleus looks in group containers, and I am imagining an entire collection of coleus - growing them in odd or creative ways - espalier comes to mind. -
Asian gourds, a big chapter from my book has inspired me to try on a greater scale. Especially after visiting Chow's parents (a Vietnamese friend of mine) whos family grew so many types in their back yard near where I live. Those will definitely be on my grow list this year - including luffa, sponge gourds and bitter melon and how to grow them, because even though many of us know what a bitter melon looks like - who knows how to cook with them? I've learned this year, and want to share it.
Oh yes, and dahlias. And sweet peas. And the tastiest tomatoes - Amy Goldman Fowler's great book THE HEIRLOOM TOMATO has reminded me that the tastiest ones are not any of the varieties I have grown in the past. Thank you Amy! Get it and read it closely - it's fabulously rich with information and well researched.
See? I'll be OK.
There are then other projects which failed once again that I want to retry until I master them. More about those later. Those potted tubs of 19th century Miognonette are going to be mastered - I know it.
As anyone who had lived through a major kitchen renovation knows, the process seems endless until that moment when it is complete - I'm a cook and a cook and gardener, so perhaps that didn't help! Curtis, Joe's nephew above helped convince us that he could handle the labor like plastering, removing walls like the mural on the right, and flooring.
It's been a long year since we began this kitchen remodel, now that the project is finally we can move onto other projects (like writing my book, and for this blog which I have been neglecting - not to mention trying to regroup myself after being laid off last March. Our greatest setback has been the tragic loss of Curtis last January - when we just didnt feel like doing anything more with the kitchen, until this October when we decided to just move ahead and finish it the best that we could.
I'm sharing this project here because I know many of you have been asking about the kitchen, or you've been here while we had been under construction. Now that it is complete, the good thing is that we finally have a great new kitchen and dining area, the bad thing is that we can no longer use the excuse that the house is a mess because of the construction!
Our brand new completed kitchen reno is spectacular, and just in time for the Holiday season.
This post is long, but it shows before, during and after images of how we combines two big rooms in an old house which was my parents, and my grandparents. I had to overcome some emotional attachment with murals that my dad painted in the 1940's and 1950's, as well as cabinetry that he also custom painted back then.
We also were working with a limited budget, one that we probably went over now that we were not getting labor from Curtis for free, but without adding it all up, I think that all of this was completed for less that 20k, which whh broke into smaller installments, 3k here, 4k there, $500 there, etc. No one really wants to know but one day, I may sit down and add it all up.
I'm open to share anything about this project if you want, especially comments about Ikea, Pergo, paint colors or any lighting, tiles or fabric. No one sponsored this post or offered free produt (what was I thinking?) but that does allow me to be honest about everything.
I began with gathering images of what I didn't want - entitled, "Kitchens I Hate", I think this might have been the main reason why my kitchen designer backed out as I realized that these sort of posh 'McMansion kitchens' were his specialty. They're nice, but just not my style.
STYLE BOARDS, and FINDING AND LOSING A KITCHEN CONSULTANT
I'll admit it - while I consider myself a nice and reasonable guy when it comes to aesthetics and design, I just can't be the easiest person to please (Joe says that I am a design snob). I like to think of myself as a serious cook as well and yes, certainly I have strong opinions when it comes to design, be it color, materials, and forms. I'm a creative professional and that comes with the territory - sorry.
Then, there is that plant thing, which adds to the complexity.
I can understand a kitchen designer not appreciating the value which I felt that a plant window or plant display area would bring, but he should have been curious enough to listen and try to solve this wish - not discourage it. When I tried to tell him that I didn't want cabinetry in some areas, or that I wanted to have stone shelves that could handle seasonal displays heavy pots or plants like camellias and forced bulbs from the greenhouse - he seemed disinterested.
OK, that not cool but I persisted telling him that I like to cook challenging dishes, often making things which require large pots and various ethnic dishes which required tagines or a place where I could keep just Indian spices. Am I wrong in assuming that a good kitchen consultant should get off on finding storage places for things that chefs of cooks might have? Things like tagines, heavy Le Creuset pots, tart rings, proofing containers and pickling crocks?
We weren't like most people. We didn't need a place to hide a Keurig or a built-in microwave dont make Hot Pockets or Lean Cuisine. We hack off chicken feet for stock pots and are proud to make temporary displays of topiaried rosemaries and myrtle trees.
Somehow I ended up with the sort of kitchen designer who defaulted to a style which was probably more suitable for the Housewives-of-Atlanta.
Kitchen remodels can be tiresome, endless projects. Weasley, our male Irigh Terrier agreeds.
After the kitchen consultant disaster, I took a few days to get my thoughts together and with Joe and Curt's 'support and promise to help, I created my own little style guide on what I would really want, within reason, after all, we don't live in a fancy neighborhood and regardless of how posh the greenhouse pictures look, the reality is that property values here are low, and so was my budget. As any designer knows, a big budget is a luxury, but a small one is just a challenge. I knew that once I started looking at Ikea and professional restaurant products, that I could assemble a somewhat decent facsimile of a kitchen that might be magazine or Pinterest-worthy.
Kitchens that I liked - a mix of classic period 20's inspired design combined with elements of modernity that I listed out.
My statements for the remodel included 'late 19th century and early 20th estate kitchen-meets- contemporary-restaurant- keywords like pure, honest, clean, modern, bright, professional, comfortable, lived-in, working-kitchen, functional and practical storage all felt right. Interpreted, these statements and keywords could be interpreted as: Open shelving which was both functional and coud display cookware proudly because it was actually usable - I love the look of stacks of white dishes and noodle bowls on shelves, or bottles lined up ready for use.
Open shelving felt more usable that cabinets as one gets closer to the cooking area. This area could serve as a bar during holidays and events, or used as a long plating area for larger parties. A case of Pellegrino is an inexpensive display when you really think about it - practical and useful too. Back-lit with under-the-shelf LED lighting used on top of the shelf, it's like a bar at a hip boutique hotel. Why not?
A before and after - the same view looking across the kitchen from the cooking area. The left image is from last October when we were about halfway through the reno, and the image on the right is from last week.
An early shot of the kitchen showing some of the old 1940's cabinetry and the door which led to our old dining room The mural that my father painted had to be torn out (half of it, anyway). The part with my family on it (on the right side wall) remains. The cabinet doors we saved, of course. I may paint some of the images on the new doors.
This old house is old, built in 1906, quirky and full of emotional attachment. A family house where 3 generations were raised afer my grandfather built it in 1906. Remove wall paper and you never know what you are going to find - pencil doodles from 1921, a news paper from 1899 (The Worcester Spy!) or bottles of old medicind from 1909. To get through this successfully, we would have to be there to evalute and make changes along the way. Yes, you can throw that out, no, let's save that pieve of old linoleum as it might make a nice pattern for inside a book that I might right.
Still, very hard decisions were made, the greatest being what to do with a huge mural on two walls that my dad had painted in the early 1950's. Removing a 70 year old mural that was the showpiece of this family kitchen is one thing, but when actual family members are in the mural, that's another thing. I wasnt about to takea sledge hammer to my mother or siblings just because I needed more space to store Doritos or Triscuit's.
AT the begining of the project, the bog mural that my dad painted had to lose about 8 feet so that we could open up the wall and combine a formal dining room with what was then, a kitchen which had last been updated in 1945.
Storage was a big concern in our reno, as well as finding a place where the refrigerator could sit. There was just no ideal place to set the fridge, but we decided to deviate from the suggestion of a work-triangle (which we had originally), so that we could open up the space more, and use the window area for seating and as a bar or buffet area. In the image above, we removed the door which led to the old dining room, as well as 8 feet of the mural and wall. It was fun to see the old flooring under the old checkered vinyl floor - I remember it from when I was a kid, my dad waxing it with a special wax because it was a rubber tile. He had created a fancy pattern and image with it that you cannot see here, but he was very proud of it.
A fake column was built to both reinforce the ceiling, and to nestle against the fridge to give the space a built-in feel. Later, we tiled the column and opened it up to make a bookcase for my cookbooks because it was hollow and while structurally neccessary, it was still wastes space.
Getting through the mess and disorder is the worst part of any renovation project, weeks feel like months. And those months felt like years.
From the opposite directions, the new column and a fake wall added - though it reduced the more-open space that I was trying to achieve.These new walls allowed us to tuck in a new set of cabinets and a new closet on the left for large pots.
From the dining room, the view looking towards the kitchen was now opened up now that the door was removed along with part of the mural and wall. Since we lost a built-in china closet that had drawers and glass doors, a column was added so that I could fit it a set of ceiling-to-floor cabinets with glass doors and many drawers. Storage, storage, storage.
As for flooring, I wish I could have afforded real wood, or even to refinish the hardwood floors that were already there, but we decided on Pergo, which wasn't the best choice because the dog's nails sound as if they are running and sliding on a cookie sheet, but it will have to do. At least it looks nice, and it's easy to clean. With a doggie door that leads into a garden with dirt and mud, our floor gets really dirty. We ended up with the weathered oak pattern that looks incredibly real - Warm Grey Oak.
I'm not thrilled with the Pergo now, I mean it looks great and seems to handle the dogs well, but it sounds as if the dogs are walking on plastic milk jugs (dogs nails) and some of the seams arre bulging a bit, not to mention that a few corner chips have happened. The price was right for us though, so it will need to stay for a while - I can't imagine how we would, or could replace it.
Given a bigger budget, I would have gone with real wood or a nice, mod geometric tile in dark and light or a pattern.
Living with a mess for a year is difficult, but now, we have just about forgotton about this part!
Anther before and after sequence - the old kitchen with the cabinetry removed on the left, and on the right, the same view completed showing the all removed and the fridge covering up half of my dads mural.
This before and after is slightly different, looking from the stove across towards the dining room.
Nearly completed now (see the old wiring at the top?) This view shows how we replaced our old china closet with an Ikea version, with lots of little drawer for things like linens , pastry making equipment, and things that little drawers attract. The pendant lamps in the foreground are Vintage Sinclair Gas Station grey enamel lights from Barn Light.com.
The fake column was controversial at first, as it wasted space but it was needed so that I could run cabinets along a new route. The piano was a problem as well. We planned on moving it to the studio, but that's on a different level and I didnt want to bring in piano movers. In the end, it fit nearly where it was, moving it only a bit to the left.
One day I sketched books onto the fake column hoping that someone might get the hint. "wouldn't a built-in bookcase look great here? Our new carpenter Mike helped me make it a reality. It has thick Brazillian slate walls from slate that our neighbor Joe had left over from a tiling job in Boston and then we illuminated the shelves with Ikea LED lights. The sort that the install in drawers. Inside the bookcase, I asked for more horizontal beadboard.
The bookcase was designed later, once Curtis had built the fake column to serve as a corner between where we were moving the refrigerator, and then on the otherside, a place were we could abut a new set of cabinets that would run from floor to ceiling to serve as a china closet with lots of little drawers for cloth napkins, place mats and pastry tips. Little drawers for all sorts of things was a luxury I dreamed of.
A view from the stove, across through where the door used to lead to the dining room. A new dining table sits in a new position next to the piano, while the breakfast counter adds a new place to sit.
THE NEW DINING AREA
While the kitchen and dining area (half of our house) was under deconstruction, we had fallen into the bad habit of eating in front of the TV so I still wanted a dining table of some sort because we had nixed both the kitchen table and our dining room. I bought a rate & Barrel Parsons dining table with a concrete top because I felt that it was daring, so modern and juxtaposed with the older elements, might make the space feel new.
On the wall in the dining room `out turn-of -the-century horsehair plaster and uneven century-old walls were problematic, to say the least. My solution was an easy one - the illusion of wainscotting and woodwork, achieved here with Masonite and wood, along with a handyman. Painted white, it allowed us to cover the walls for only a few hundred dollars.
Once painted with a glossy white, I topped it off with inexpensive wood paneling that looks like beadboard. The difference here is that I wanted the look of a 1910 boathouse on an estate that my family used to visit in the summer in Kennebunkport Maine on vacation (don't ask). It's horizontal lines always struck me as interesting, and when I saw it used again at a seafood restaurant, I knew that I had to use it somewhere. Horizontal rather than verticle beadboard elevates the look of a $19 panel from Home Depot. It's a motif that is repeated in the bookcase, and on other walls.
Plant geeks and new gardeners enjoy the simple joys of forcing paperwhites - it would. be a sad winter season if I ever skipped planting a few dozen.
As the winter holidays creep up on us, many are thinking about Holiday plants. While it's nice to buy pre-grown plants, raising something from a bulb is even more fun. Amaryllis and paperwhite narcissus are classic standbys for the season, but with three weeks until Christmas, this is the last weekend one can plant bulbs of paperwhites if you want blooms by Christmas Eve. I am fine with blooms anytime before New Year's Day.
Paperwhite narcissus (and amaryllis) bulbs are some of the first plants many of us began growing, they make terrific gifts for children who are showing a slight interest in gardening, as their fool-proof and often spectacular display is easy to achieve and will reinforce a love for the magic of gardening.
Paperwhite narcissus are virtually foolproof. We all probably have a personal memory of our first paperwhite adventure, mine began in the late 1960's when as a kid I would go shopping with my parents to a local landmark store named Spag's, once located in Shrewsbury, MA.
I found this 'Spagtacular' watercolor of Spag's on the site of a local artist (a neighbor, really just a few a streets away from me!). Michael Wackell, Sr. suffers from Parkinson's Disease diagnosed in 2012 yet he is able to paint these amazing watercolors After chatting with his daughter at Southpaw Watercolors. I was so impressed with his work I just had to share some of it here. This piece really captured the essence of the store in the 1970's - check out that car! I nice gift this season might include a donation to the Michael J. Fox Foundation which is dedicated to finding a cure.
'No bags at Spag's' was a familiar tag-line to many residents in central New England, for the store was packed with many odd rituals. A family run business, Spag's himself wore his trademark cowboy hat which was featured on the outside of the store in a large illuminated sign. Customers would enter through a revolving steel - pipe door, find a box and then follow a standard path through a maze (no one could deviate from the flow, much like Ikea, which snaked through the store.
Spag's, a local store near me on bnusy route 9 in Shrewsbury, MA is gone now, but many residents have fond memories of buying bulbs and Holiday gifts there. This image is from the 1950's.
Spags carried most everything and anything, from fishing equipment to sporting goods, furniture to carpets, cans of pistachios (stacked to the ceiling) to board games and toys. Boxes of clothespins, bins of shampoo bottles and of course, flower bulbs. The store is gone now and a new Whole Foods is opening this January, but Whole Foods was nice enough to pay homage to this local landmark with a special sign outside of their new, modern building. A nice touch.
For years, Spags was THE place to buy Dutch bulbs (paperwhites were only .19 cents!), and they would carry all of the color forms, all of which are botanically known as tazetta types, one of the 13 classes of narcissus, often multi-flowers, fragrant flowers. Speaking of fragrance, the tazetta class has some of the most fragrant narcissus known in the garden, but perhaps to some, a few of the stinkiest. I happen to love the scent of the paperwhite narcissus, but I can sympathize with those who feel that they smell like cat pee.
Easy enough to grow, if you find yourself with some paperwhite bulbs this winter, I thought that I would share how I grow mine. I use soil and rocks, but one can surely use just rocks. I feel that professional potting soil offers better root growth (roots need oxygen, too) and the medium feels more natural.I can topdress the pots with gravel, and the soil allows me to add birch, fothergilla or stewartia branches which help keep the stems erect. One shouldn't stake paperwhites, for there is no elegant way.
If you are trying the alcohol method to restrict the height of the foliage and stems (apparently it works according to a study at Cornell), the all-gravel method will be a better choice for you. Do know that this will slow down the growth rate a bit, so bulbs treated in such a way maybe a week or two later in booming.
I pot up large pots and bowls, this year planted about 15 bulbs in a new Guy Wolff salad mixing bowl, but I also pot single bulbs in plastic pots which I can set between the potted plants in my plant window displays.
I used to believe that Paperwhite narcissus was relatively new on the scene, assuming that forcing them was a 20th century invention, but you might be surprised to discover that the Chinese raised the bi-colored tazetta known as the Chinese Sacred Lily as long ago as the year 700 AD, and the paperwhite itself shortly after that. Native to the Middle East, wild populations of Narcissus papyraceus have been some of the earliest bulbs grown by humans, while the selections known sometimes as Narcissis Polyanthus, N. Grandilora or even even N. paperwhite have appeared in bulb importer catalogs as long ago as 1790. They have been grown in the US as long ago as the early 19th century. These are not new novelties.
Potted paperwhite narcissus planted in soil and then top-dressed with sheet moss on a bench in my greenhouse. These will root in the cool environment and grow short and stocky stems with the bright light. They will be brought into the house near Christmas Even to brighten window sills and add Holiday cheer to the rooms.
While the genus Narcissus continues to be a muddled group (taxonomically speaking), most agree on where the paperwhite come from. The American Daffodil Society whose website admits that while there is there is disagreement, about the total number of species within Narcissus (somewhere between 40 and 200) there are other organizations such as the venerable Pacific Bulb Society who admit that there may be between 26 to 80 species. Factor in that there are currently more than 25,000 named cultivars and hybrids out there, things can get quite confusing. Paperwhites are
I like to research a bit with common plants, and given the topic of paperwhites, I have been curious about where they actually come from, or where they grow wild. Narcissus papyraceus is the accepted and preferred botanical name, yet few of us would use it unless we had some bulbs or seed from a wild population - still, it's helpful to know names are not proper anymore.
N. tazetta var. papyraceus N. tazetta subsp. papyraceus N. linnaeanus subsp. papyraceus,
Each of these is now taxonomically incorrect. Use this post to correct friends and family at a Holiday party. They will be impressed, and then, move on.
You are welcome.
Paperwhite fragrance isn't for everyone, but it is a scent which I would miss every winter.
This week I bought some paperwhite bulbs from Home Depot, and the package had "Narcissus grandiflora" on the front, along with 'Ziva'.
Sadly this is a 19th century name which hasn't been used for over 100 years, but not unusual in a world where a Google search often acts as a copywriters first choice.
Narcissus collectors (yes, there are some) know that there are obscure subspecies associated within the N. papyraceus clan, all are wild populations of a sort-of paperwhite narcissus. These include
N. papyraceus ssp. pachybolbus N. papyraceus ssp. panizzianus N. papyraceus ssp. papyraceus N. papyraceus polyanthos
Retired forever are the 19th century names for the Paperwhite, this includes Polyanthus Narcissus, Grandiflora Narcissus and Narcissus Paperwhite.
don't you love the term 'Gian Odorous' narcissus? 19th-century bulb catalogs often featured many different types and selections of easy-to-force bulbs like paperwhites. They are hardly new to us.
We in the 21st century have the luxury of choosing from a dozen or so named crosses and selections - clones of choice varieties, some tall, some ridiculously fragratm, some stinky, and some with little to no scent if you are weird.
These include the Dutch propagated selections we most commonly see today like: N. papyraceus 'Ziva' and N. papyraceus 'Inbal', and a long list of other names I don't feel like looking up here - if a variety with a name appears in a bulb catalog today, it is undoubtedly a choice one, just buy based upon your taste.
As for the related species and selections which can be grown (forced-in-gravel) are a few other types, including all yellow, ivory and some bicolored forms like 'Chinese Sacred Lily', not really a lily of course, but essentially a tazetta-group narcissus which can be forced indoors without vernalization (a cold period). I've seen some bloggers and writers refer to these as 'tropical' narcissus, but they are simply mediterranean types which are tender. Some of these have a longer cultural tail with humans, especially in Asia. These include some forms here, which bloom a little later in the winter season and take longer to get going in a pot. All sweetly fragrant, they include:
N. tazetta "Grand Soleil d'Or' N. tazetta "Flore Plenus" N. tazetta "Chinese Sacred Lily" N. tasetta "odoratus"
There are plenty of other N. tazetta subspecies which are cold hardy and good choices for northern gardeners outdoors, but I'll spare you. They are easy to track down, just look for bulbs classified as tazetta types.
Every plant has roots to a wild population. N. papyraceus comes from Greece and north Africa (Morocco) and places like Croatia. Populations have naturalized in Italy, Australia and even in the southern US.
I feel like a slug not posting for an entire month now, perhaps the longest absence in the history of this blog but my book is taking priority along with the work on our kitchen remodel (almost done!!!). Thanks for being patient. It's a busy time of year for many of us, so maybe I am being kind in giving you less to read!
Shell beans are drying on the porch, most are props for my book on vegetable gardening but they wont go to waste. It's been fun raising a dozen or so varieties of dried beans, as they remind me of one of the first crops I raised as a kid after seeing an exhibit of dried beans at a fall harvest show at the Worcester County Horticultural Society back in the 1970's.
One month. One entire month since my last post! That's what writing a book does to you. Trust me, it will be worth it. At least that's what I keep telling myself, (even though I well know that one doesnt make money from a book - a book is just a creative project a few of us feel the need to produce.). Since it is already November, I felt that staying up late for one night is something my followers deserve - even if it is just a post with a bunch of random pictures documenting what is happening in the garden and house over the past few weeks.
Someone was trying to explain to me twhy they hate autumn the other day, In his head, the entire season could be summed up in a single word - senescence. Sure, I thought, I could kind-of understand that idea - if it comes from the mind of a non-gardener, but for those of use in-touch with nature, we know that each season is rich. Sure, there are those of us who love the beauty of autumn, the serene restfulness of winter and rebirth in the spring, but true plant people find no season boring, or dead. We just rest a bit more in the winter.
Home grown potatoes are like tomatoes in that their flavor is almost indescribable when freshly dug.
With Thanksgiving a week away, and a longer than average summer, many of un in the East have had time to harvest crops which in some years fall victim to early hard frosts. Root crops usually are OK until mid-November, and this year is no exception with record breaking warmth and rainfall, this could be the year of the turnip, radish and potato. I was late in digging our potato rows this year, but they were just fine resting in the ground until I could get to them.
Nothing tastes like a potato straight from the garden - terroir on steroids. I cannot think of any other crop, aside from carrots maybe, that tasted absolutely different when freshly harvested, and different from garden to garden depending on the mineral content and balance in the soil. Lets face it, potatoes taste like soil (in a good way), and nothing tastes as incredible as a potato from ones own back yard.
Heirloom Blue Hopi Corn has an almost unbelivable denim color in the right light.
Black Aztec pop corn fresh from the garden still drying on the porch. Grown as props for my vegetable book, the colors of dried field and pop corn always amazes me.
While on the subject of black, I have to share these black Spanish radishes. So spicy and crisp, they can function as a storage turnip if kept in a root cellar or in the fridge - that is, if they last that long. We are addicted to using them in stews and pot roast, braised after peeling them like turnips, and for use in kimchi, or freshly sliced in salads. Only 50 days from seed sown in late August, it's a fast autumn crop.
And speaking of autumn crops - some record-breaking harvests of red turnips, watermelon radishes, purple Asian and white Tokyo turnips. Just about a photogenic that a vegetable can get - you should see some of the shots that have made it into the book!
Not one to waste photoprops, we've been up to out ears in turnips and radishes this autumn!
I'm moving on to squashes now as photo subjects, but it's such a large subject for a vegetbale book, that only a few will make it onto the pages.
While buying cider at the orchard in Bolton MA this weekend, we saw our friend Gayle Joseph from the Dahlia Society of New England across the street digging her tubers after our first hard frost. She has an amazine 18th century brick house in Bolton, MA but her garden and dahlias are insane. I know that she is rushing to get them dug and stored before ski season, as she works as a ski race official at our local ski mountain.
Gayle showed us a little bird nest in a dahlia plant which was just a few feet from a busy road. I think that it might be the nest of a field sparrow. It was only 2 feet off of the ground.
The colors underneath the old tile in our kitchen revealed some interesting tones. Now, I am inspired - what about a pink, coral and orange kitchen with light teal? Sounds like a tuban winter squash to me - so I am off to the paint store!
Now, as if we are not doing enough, the kitchen remodel has taken off again since the Holidays are sneaking up. We've got a bit of help from some neighborhood handimen who are helping us tile, plaster and finally finish this 1 year project. As anyone who has undergone a kitchen project knows, these are painful projects - especially when doing them yourself. Hopefully we are nearly done, and when it is complete, I promise that I will write a great post about the entire project, with before and after shots.
With paper removed, we discovered pink walls and old woodwork. Most of this will be marble tile, but the pink is giving me some ideas.
Subway tile mauy be overused, but I think it works well with my dad's mural and the period of the house. We are using two types. An all white tile, and one that looks like alabaster or marble.
` In the greenhouse its crowded now that the cold weather has arrived. The heat has officially been turned on and the shade cloth removed. It's funny how quickly the seasons change in the autumn. Spring comes on gradually, but autumn, or winter seems to come suddenly. One hard frosty night and every tender plant turns brown and limp. Underglass, however, everything is lush and fragrant. Safe from freezes.
It's where the chili peppers are spending an extended vacation until it gets really cold, something the later-ripening peppers really need such as the habanero, Carolina Reapers and the Rocoto peppers. I never knew that there was this secret society of chili pepper enthusiasts who trade seeds of favortie varieties and keep plants through the winter indoors. Well, it's not really secret, but it's a think that I never knew about until this year.
Some of my chili peppers that are wintering over in the greenhouse.
Pepper enthusiasts are just a passionate about their chili pepper plants as orchid growers are about their plants, and they often share tips and tricks on-line, either via Youtube or chat groups about how to dig and prune pepper plants so that they can survive a safe winter indoors. Peppers are perennial in long-season areas, but in the north, the hard-core pepper fans keep their favorite chili's through the winter, often for a few years. Some brag that they have tubs of plants over 8 years old.
Certain chilis fare better than others indoors. Mostly folks save their chiltipin types, some habanero and Rocoto types of peppers. Late maturing types are usually brought in (as most raise them in containers), and the peppers are harvested as they ripen through the autumn. Others trim their plants back, and keep them in a semi-dorman state until late winter when the plants begin to show new growth. This past summer I saw some amazing tiny Pequin-type peppers that were three years old, and wintered over in a cellar. They were being raised in 5 gallon bakery buckets.
Cyclamen species, even though they are done blooming, are entering what many beleive are their most attractive phase - foliage. I never tire of looking at a bed of different cyclamen species. My sand beds hold about 8 species, mostly C. hederifolium and C. graecum variations and a handful of others.
I'm at that pont when cyclamen are self seeding everywhere thanks to ants which plant the seeds in May and June from the dried pods where ever they want - usually in the ground near the foundation, or in other pots. This is making my cyclamen beds a bit of a jumbled mess (I mean, trying to identify C. hederifolium from C. africanum drives me crazy!).
The last of the Nerine sarniensis are blooming, with some newer crosses showing some very interesting color patterns. My seedlings from random crosses are beginning to bloom this year. I know that these are not common plants and not something most people can grow unless they have a greenhouse, but I am sharing just the same. They are rarely seen in gardens or most collections these days sine they are winter blooming, and tender - related to the amaryllis.
I have aquired a collection of Zepheranthes and thought that I might keep them in pots . This is Z. drummondii, which has been blooming on and off all summer and now, in the greenhouse.
The nicest looking house plants make it to the plant window. Joe and I will fight about it, but this window is curated, or at least, that's how I defend what stays and what goes back into the greenhouse. This time of year, it's the begonias that look their best. Palms, Dioon, and warm-loving tropicals get first dibs.
Across the Internet, on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook - we gardeners (in the colder parts of the world) have been sharing tales of 'the First Frost'. While for most folks this just means dragging out a few old sheets to throw over the tomatoes or dahlias, for others it means a mad rush (because we wait until the last moment) to move heavy pots of tender plants, houseplants and the last flowers and veggies into the house. It's an annual ritual which sneaks up on us remarkable fast, for while spring seems to ease in with a few warm days here and there as early as February or March, autumns arrive comes with an immediacy - a fatal blow of temperatures which dip below 32° F for a few hours, usually here in New England sometimes in mid October.
And of course...our frost never came. At least everything is now indoors or in the greenhouse. Nothing like looking as if I am completely prepared ahead of schedule.
If you've ever tried to winter-over rosemary indoors, you know how difficult it can be. I always feel sorry for those Christmas-tree trained rosemary one sees at the Holidays as potted gift plants. Knowing that most if not all will be dead within a week or two indoors drive me mad, but the fact is that rosemary is a Mediterranean shrub. It requires cool, breezy, buoyant air with a touch of moisture, not hot, dry indoor conditions. My rosemary plants tend to get too large now, virtually shrubs which I love. Fresh rosemary in the winter a luxury I will miss if I cant find a good place to winter them over once we stop heating the greenhouse, but I am going to try keeping a few in our un-heated concrete floor studio.
What rosemary needs during the winter months is both the brightest light and cold temperatures. At least as a container plant. The way I treat rosemary now is rather careless. I keep many through the winter under glass where some are even just bare root balls sitting on the gravel under a greenhouse bench, they bloom in the winter and even grow enough so that I can propagate them from cuttings. This tells me that the low temperatures and moisture in the damp. cold greenhouse suits them.
In some ways this makes sense. If this was California or the Mediterranean, these shrubs would be subjected to winter rains and cool weather. In the summer, I unpot most of my shrubs and set them into the garden, which allows them to dry out just enough but also keeps them from drying out completely if I forget to water a container. Rosemary doesn't like dampness, as they are prone to mildew and decay if the air isn't moving, but with fans and sunshine, most seem to be able to handle our New England winter if allowed to dry out between watering.
This large rosemay shrub was planted out in the perennial border for the summer. A fresh pot of soil, some pruning of stray or awkward branches is all it needs. I never cut back rosemary in the autumn, as I want them to bloom in the late winter, and trimming affects the overall appearance. The only rosemary I do trim are topiary forms. This includes domes, cones and topiary standards. I like to use both - natural unclipped rosemary for graceful branching and flowers, and formal clipped plants.
I should mention also that my soil mix for rosemary is a mixture of our local clay loam, sand, and commercial potting mix. A dense, sandy blend which isn't fussy by any measurement, but more loam than it is peat. I also notice that very little root growth happens in the summer here. I can dig or pull a large plant out at the end of summer, and the root ball is intact, even though some significant growth on top occurred. I am not sure why this happens.
I repot many of my plants in early spring, around February or March while still in the greenhouse and maybe that has something to do with the lack of summer root growth. The plants usually about to bloom then, which signals a burst of new growth as well. I loosen the old root ball and generally repot into the same sized pot, or slightly larger. I've found that under-potting suits them well.
Rosemary cuttings are struck now (along with many other woody herbs which are experiencing an autumnal growth spur with the advent of cooler weather). These will root quickly and are already claimed for a project of mine - pots of interlocking globes, or rings-a type of shaped topiary form. I've already ordered the wire, so I am committed. I think I need a straight growing variety, but if not, I have others rooted.
Blue agapanthus blooming heavily - the fact that most form flowerbuds in the previous year should affect how we treat containerized plants in the north, since autumn is a critical time when plants need adequate moisture and nutrition.
or HOW TO GET AGAPANTHUS TO BLOOM AGAIN (and some news on Nerine blooms)
Wintering over agapanthus, or Blue Lily of the Nile is rather easy, but getting plants to bloom again can be tricky. Myths about over-wintering Agapanthus or Blue Lily of the Nile abound on the internet, which leaves many of us in the north frustrated, while those in warmer parts of the country like California wonder what all of the fuss is about.
I am a bit of an amaryllid geek (I collect and grow many plants within the amaryllis family), and because of this, I think I have a few things figured out. Not to brag, but I worked really hard trying to master what is perhaps the most notoriously shy bloomer in the family - the nerine.
Nerine sarniensis, related to agapanthus, are true bulbs, and while agapanthus are also geophytes, it's easier to think of them more as 'Leeks are to Onions'. Not really going completely dormant, and always with a flower bud deep inside. These nerine demand special treatment in summer when the enjoy hot temperatures and dry conditions - in the greenhouse, even though they are hot and dry(ish) they still get a few tablespoons of water now and then, as below ground, their roots are growing madly, and I know that they form flower buds three years in advance - must protect those.
Agapanthus are heavy feeders so plan on feeding them with a rich water-soluble fertilizer all summer and autumn. If you have fear using the blue fertilizer one mixes with water, it may be challenging to get good results with agapanthus. The national collections in England and those who enter the large flower shows like Chelsea feed their plants weekly (yes, weekly) with a 15-15-30 water-soluble feed, and often augment their feeding regimen with additional phosphorus in late summer and autumn when the flower buds for the following year are forming.
In mid-summer, the agapanthus are often the stars of the container garden.
Many of us in the north think that Agapanthus like growing in tub and pots, and that they bloom best if allowed to get rootbound, but actually this myth perpetuates (along with clivia needing the same treatment - another amaryllid). Agapanthus can grow well in pots, but they always do better if grown in open soil. The bit of truth in this myth comes from the fact that agapanthus dislikes having their fleshy, robust roots disturbed, and if they are divided, forget about seeing a good display of flowers for a few years - probably three.
Success in containers comes with three things: 1. Find the largest container you can find - anything to reduce how often you will have to divide them. A faster draining soil is helpful (some Brits add gravel to their mixes but I use a high porosity ProMix HP). 2. Water and feed very well during the summer and autumn, when plants are forming flower buds for next year. Room for active root growth and water with good drainage (along with the removal of the current years' flower stems - no matter how pretty you think the seed heads are) will help the plant focus on foliage growth and flower bud formation deep inside the leek-like trunk. 3. Autumn and winter care that will help protect these flower buds.
A un-named white variety - an evergreen form, makes a large specimen plant for us. We keep four tubs, each divisions from when they were divided three years ago. They are just beginning to bloom well this past summer.
Evergreen agapanthus varieties have slightly fleshier leaves and seem to handle some frost, and deciduous ones seem as if they can handle light freezes since these are the hardiest types - but the same treatment goes for both - watch out for hard freezes, for while agapanthus growing in the ground can handle freezes, potted specimens can have their flower buds for the following season damaged.
I hate to say that a cold greenhouse is an answer, but I should say that it is ideal. Similar conditions might be found if you are clever - an unheated shed that never freezes, an enclosed sunroom or porch that rarely drops below 40 degrees. A cellar is fine if it is cold, but I would suggest moving large agapanthus tubs to the protection of a porch or cool room until well after Thanksgiving to allow flower buds to mature deep inside the plant. Not scientific advice, but one which I presume works, as I've tried most everything else, and feel that my problem in the past came from insufficient feed and bringing plants in too early, or leaving them out to experience hard frosts too long.
My theory is reinforced by those who grow collections in the UK. Two major growers have discovered that in some winters, the entire collections of agapanthus have been lost due to unexpected freezes. Now, all of my potted agapanthus, (both evergreen and deciduous) get the same treatment. They are brought into the greenhouse just near frost (around mid-October), set under the benches where they still get some sunlight and daylight so that they can vernalize as best as they can.
Most importantly, they seem to bloom heavier if I continue to water them well. At least until the weather turns very cold, around December, when I let up. Adequate moisture and food seems to be the trick required for heavy bud formation.
Our towering blue agapanthus Storm Cloud were divided two years ago, and many divisions were potted up into 12 inch pots. This year I've repotted them into 16 inch long toms, but blooms are still sparse. At this stage, great care must be taken to not allow the pots to freeze, and with additional food and potassium, they may bloom better next summer, but it's the following year when allowed to grow in 40 inch tubs when they should take off. The seed pods on the dwarf selection on the left should have been removed earlier.
An agapanthus spending a winter in a cellar where it is cool is a fine alternative, but I would try to allow plants to grow a little longer, either indoors or on a cool porch, along with a bit of moisture to ensure that buds fully form. Then bring plants into a cooler location to "sleep". I wouldn't be surprised that day length and temperature shifts help manage floral displays as well, for clivia and nerine are day-length and temperature sensitive, which affects blooming. The easiest way around this dilemma is to allow plants to get a natural day length, making a window in the cellar or garage with no artificial lights in the winter helpful.
Others write about wintering over agapanthus in breezeways or sunrooms. These should be fine as long as the pots don't freeze. Agapanthus are tough plants, and while the plants can survive even harsh abuse, often creating spectacular foliar displays, it's bloom, and abundance of bloom one really wants. If someone is offering advice to you, make sure that they are showing photos of their results for it is easy to winter agapanthus over, but it is very tricky to get them to bloom well.
If you have not been fertilizing your agapanthus all summer, it may be too late now. Just make a mental note to begin next spring. Additional potassium is very helpful in high summer to really get well-blooming agapanthus. That's what exhibitors in the UK and commercial growers apply throughout the summer growing period along with a balanced feed (20-20-20). If you feel uncomfortable feeding plants with high doses of plant food, you may want to steer clear of agapanthus, or simply appreciate the foliage.
On the right is a tall, cone-shaped topiary rosemary. This is an upright form, which only wants to grow ramrod straight-up. I don't know the exact variety as I found the plant in an old estate greenhouse in Connecticut, but it has white flowers. Cuttings of many herbs are taken at this time too since most have produced the strongest and healthiest growth during the summer. These pots of thyme were started from cuttings I took last fall, and are nice and dense now, and ready for new cuttings. On the left, a dwarf agapanthus and a topiary myrtus await being moved into the greenhouse.
Woody herbs remain outdoors in my garden until mid-November or early December. This includes all varieties of thyme, some rosemary, and culinary sage. Tender mints and tender thyme (like Cat Thyme) are brought into the greenhouse. Each of these will be propagated in mid-winter for garden plants next year, and the mother plant tossed. Until then, they provide herbs for the kitchen, soups and Holiday roasts.
Some plants that spent time in the greenhouse last winter, were just planted out because I knew that they would be too large and woody to bring underglass for another year. These I will take cuttings of, such as this flowering maple, or Abutilon. The strong growth made during late summer should produce strong, healthy plants.
The same goes for scented geraniums. I have so many, but they are massive. This peppermint scented geranium is in a pot believe it or not, it is nearly 6 feet in diameter, so cutting are in order. It will root easily. I was suprised to hear last weekend at a family reunion that my great aunt who live in abig, white house the street next to ours (and who was born in 1889), had a large scented geranium collection in her house according to her great grand-daughter.
Succulents, cacti and echiveria still go into the cold greenhouse where they remain dry most of the winter. This tree aloe keeps growing, and although it wants to bloom in the coldest months - usually January when the day length is short, it seems to handle the cold, damp temperatures and even a light freeze which usually destroys the flower stalk. It would be much happier indoors near a sunny, bright window though. It's just too big now to bring into the house.
Most succulents do quite well indoors throughout the winter as long as one can provide the brightest light. Sunshine, actually. Aloes, gasteria and agave do just fine on a windowsill with southern exposure. The larger species, however, are more challenging, if only for their weight and size. Around here, we've stopped raising most agave as the thorns can injure the dogs' eyes, if not our own. The few I do keep are planted in taller pots and are very resilient as most succulent plants are.
Many if not most of my succulents simple spend the winter yanked from their pots (before a hard frost), and laid out on seed trays which I set on the high, dry benches in the greenhouse. This blatant abuse seems to suit them. Few grow even a tiny bit until the days start to get longer, in late winter, which is when I pay them a little attention.
If you wish to save you echeveria, aloes or sedums, they should be the most tolerant of indoor conditions, only demanding the brightest winter light, and more water if kept on a warm windowsill, but less if you are keeping them in a cold room or garage window that doesn't freeze.
Citrus, like this Mandarin orange enjoy the greenhouse, it's sun and moist air. Indoors, I may set it in the studio, an unheated room which is bright, but not sunny. This room stays near 40 degrees most of the winter and has bright north light, not unlike a French orangerie.
CITRUS - A few more tips on keeping citrus indoors
I can remember how exciting it was to grow my first citrus - a Key Lime plant purchased from Parks seed - it was probably 1969 and I was ten or so. My grapefruit seedlings were my real treatures though, even though I knew that they would not produce any fruit, I kept all of my citruses as large houseplants until I left for college a decade later.
Citrus can grow quite well indoors, but it helps if you can do a few things. First, setting plants outdoors for the summer is key. Most will bloom then, and pollination is aided, as well as the rain and bright sunshine which helps eliminate any pesky insect infestation they might get during the winter. It seems ever winter brought an infestation of scale or mealy bugs.
At this time, I am continuing to keep all of my citrus in the greenhouse, but next winter I may try moving them..
Rainbow carrot varieties may seem new and trendy, but they should remind us that white, yellow and dark purple carrots were once the only colors available - for centuries. It wasn't until the 19th century when orange carrots were preferred and selected by the Dutch. Also, need I add that nothing tastes like a fresh carrot from the garden. Don't believe me? Taste-test yourself and let me know. No poly-bagged variety can compare. No garden? Try store-bought carrots with their greens still on. Much more flavorful than poly-bagged or loose carrots.
The low angle of autumn sunshine illuminates everything in a special way. Most mornings and evenings I have been shooting photos for my book but also really enjoying being outdoors with a purpose other than weeding. It seems that for the past month with dental surgery and now an unseasonable cold, that I've been sick for a month - I can't wait to feel tip-top again so that I can enjoy the autumnal weather.
The ornamental 'Black Pearl' chili is edible but mostly, it's grown for its black foliage and black, imature peppers. On the left, a Bishops Hat chili shows off all three colors. All of these peppers have been grown in pots this year while culiunary types (sweeter or peppers which we need in abundance like banana peppers are grown in rows, planted in black plastic mulch).
Cayenne peppers are still ripening, but given our warmer than average autumn, most may be red in a few weeks. Black plastic for the culinary peppers keeps the soil warm and extends the season right up to frost.
This 'Bishops Cap' chili (not the 2017 AAS winner 'Mad Hatter', but similar) is hot, but not shockingly so. It's been a fav around here as while hot, it's not deadly. Our 'Carolina Reaper's, Ghost Peppers, various Scorpion's, hababero and Jolokia-types are still too hot. I'm trying to make some hot sauces so that they don't go to waste, but man-oh-man, my first two batches were inedible, or un-inhalable!
Autumn containers are looking bright and colorful. All of the chilis are being raised in pots this year, which was an idea I got while visiting Amy Goldman's farm last year. Sure, she had a field of peppers, but many were also grown in pots. They make attractive plants, and many people keep certain varieties indoors in the winter.
'Gambo;, an heirloom stuffing pepper is a bell type, sweet and great when picked either green or when red.
Many 'Hungarian type' of peppers exist but few are as fruitful as the traditional tri-colored selections. The varieity kniown as 'Hungarian Hot Wax' is one of the most abundant peppers that the home grower can raise.
'Carolina Reaper', considered to be the world's hottest pepper looks as hot as it is reported to be. Coral-red and blistered, it dares us to taste it, but I wont! Nope. Just pretty as a photo prop!
'Biquinho', a BRazillian landrace pepper means 'little beak'. Also known as 'chupetinho', I have not tasted nor cooked with this tiny chili yet. It is said to have a slightly smokey flavor (I wonder if that is because it first burns your mouth? I am now a little spooked!).
Yellow peppers are always showy, and while lovely, these 'Yellow Ghost' peppers may just remain on this plant after I tasted one - (just one - just a tiny bit on my tongue. I mean really - who eats these things?).
I've been shooting chili peppers for about a month. Honestly, I have not counted how many varieties I have but there must be more than 30. I still haven't found the perfect way to shoot them, trying everything from arranging them in color order, to individual portraits. I am still experimenting with layouts and style, it seems everything has been done already and it's tough to find a new style.
Of course, the dahlia garden has never looked good now that all of the local dahlia shows are over! This blackish red one is 'Tartan'.
Chinese long beans are a first-time crop for me, and I am addicted to them. This second picking is shorter (still long a 14 - 16 inches) than the first picking which had beans nearly 24 inches long.
These "red noodle beans' are abundant and tender. Both the green and the red varieties will always be included in my planting schemes from now on. Grow them like pole beans (I use tall pole-bean towers from Gardeners Supply), which are tall enough for the long beans to dangle without touching the ground.
The parsnips that I planted this spring are nearly ready for pulling. A few were dug this weekend to see how long they were. I don't want to give things away, but this year I grew my parsnips in the same way serious competitive parsnip enthusiasts grow theirs in England (drilling a deep hole, setting in long seedlings, etc), and I can report that the results were impressive. Not that any human needs parsnips this big and long! The best and step-by-step shots are saved for my book.
Parsnip pride. Long, deep and as wide as my arm. The row will be dug throught the winter, as these roots will be sweeter once cold weather knocks down the foliage and freezing weather arrives. A thick layer of straw over the row will allow me to dig parsnips all winter.
Some local farms are allowing me to shoot crops in their fields, which Daphne (Doodle)s loves. Nothing like a run down a long row of Broccoli in the autumn sunshine. She can use the exercise.
The crowds were delighted at this weekends' second annual New England Dahlia Society Show held at Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, MA. It may end up being another record crowd for this two year old dahlia society with entries coming from all New England States and New York.
You might remember that two years ago, on a whim I announced on this blog that I was thinking about starting a New England Dahlia Society. The two Connecticut chapters were too far to Vermont or New Hampshire growers, and I felt that a club based in central Massachusetts might be a good idea, after all, the Worcester County Horticultural Society (who run Tower Hill Botanic Garden) used to have dahlia exhibitions as far back as the 1890's. The idea seemed right given the new interest in the dahlia.
I didn't know what to expect after that post and our first meeting, yet so many interested members showed up at our house that it seeming like it might actually work. I was so pleased that all the nearby chapters helped as well as the American Dahlia Society in getting us started. I really didn't know the first thing about starting a dahlia society (well, maybe the 'first' thing, but these things cant just be started without lots of help. Most plant societies are over a hundred years old, and finding or retaining members is getting more and more difficult. This New England Dahlia Society is kind-of prooving that maybe, plant societies aren't going away. The public loves this show, so many visitors were telling me that that came because of last years' show. Many were inspired to start growing dahlias because of it.
At the end of this post I am sharing my favorites from the show (ones I plan on ordering), but I am so excited about this one, that I have to give you a tease. Meet 'Hollyhill Calico'.
FIND THE VARIETIES YOU WANT TO GROW AT LOCAL DAHLIA SHOWS
What's not to love when it comes to dahlias? So many colors, so many sizes, from the tiniest ones less than an inch in diameter to dinner-plate sized ones so incredibly huge and fluffy, there are spidery black ones, some that look like waterlilies, pompons and cactus types - in colors that excite that people of all ages pull out their smartphones and just have to snap photos, (here's a couple tips: dahlias shows are great ways to discover the prettiest varieties to grow at home, and because most of these dahlia varieties come from small specialty growers, take a picture of the tag too so that you can Google the name and find a tuber because more likely than not, you are not going to find these dahlias at big box stores or even local nurseries in those colored poly bags in the spring, as those are all Dutch propagated varieties or commercial varieties (like those from Spring Hill and the big nurseries with color printed catalogs). Not that there is a bad dahlia out there, but.... these below are newer, and probably haven't been propagated yet in big fields to be mass marketed.
I can't take credit for much with this show, as I've been too busy with my book. The most I could do was to take photos and help during the show a little bit, all credit has to go to the show team lead by President Donna Lane. Special thanks to officers Gayle Joseph, Chou Ho, and Cheryl Monroe as well as (my) Joe who spent hours getting ready. Victoria, a new member was extremely helpful and many others (sorry, I forgot all your names!). Growing a new society to be this active at a time when most plant societies are failing isnt easy. It takes lots of time and effort. Cheers to all.
Kudos must go to the nearby dahlia society chapters for they are critical, especially to Ivan from the Provincetown Massachusetts Chapter who partnered on this show. He was instrumental in bringing this show to even a higher bar. Both Connecticut chapters brought many blooms - as their growers are perhaps the most experienced in the area. I was impressed that this show also drew participants from as far away as Vermont and New York, as well as Rhode Island. It is truly a New England Show.
My dahlias were not handled with the care that others may have offered. I focused on ball types. mostly 'Mary's Jomanda', 'Jomanda' and others. I felt that focus was a better way to grow exhibition dahlias rather than lots of different ones. I just tied them onto bamboo canes so that they wouldnt break. I need to work on getting a better transportation system.
At Tower HIll BG the award tables were set up early on Friday. All of this had to be done before the show opened on Saturday morning. (each sign is a different award for a particular class). Imagine the organizing and prep that had to be done!
The main exhibition hall at Tower Hill Botanic Garden also had to be prepared with more signs - each showing the specific classification for each type of dahlia. All the dahlias will be staged here and then judged behind closed doors.
Chou Ho, an active member and a significant contributor on the show team may still be 'technically new' at raising dahlias, one wouldn't know it. He's been winning top awards throughout the northeast and at this show.
Dahlia society folks will recognize this name, Marg Schnerr, one of the American Dahlia Societies most active and knowledgeable members. We are so lucky to be able to draw entrants like Marg and many others from nearby chapters in New England. We all have so much to learn.
Cheryl Monroe, the treasurer from our chapter playing with some rather large dinner plate or 'AA' dahlias.
This exhibitor came from New York state with dozens of amazing dahlias.
And he brought these. Each one is nearly 10 inches across! The variety is 'Tartan'.
Chou Ho carefully prepares his entries in backstage at Tower Hill Botanic Garden. It takes great care to look up the identifying numbers, codes and other relevant information for each dahlia. Entries can't be
It can take hours for entrants once they arrive at the botanic garden to unpack their blooms and to get them set into special vases and displays. Once properly labeled with all of the codes, the blooms are brought out to the benches and set out for judging. Every entry must have a pair of leaves, no open center, no green center, as it can be disqualified.
The name and variety must be included along with the codes and the grower's name. It takes time to get everything right (I had a flower disqualified because I wrote the wrong classification on it (Ball, when it was a Mini Ball).
Entries are set out on tables and set at the perfect angle. New entrants were helped in the novice section, as this can get confusing, but this show ended up with three tables of novice or first-time entries - how great is that?
The 'Waterlily' class had many entries. This was also our challenge flower (the orange one in the back). All our members recieved a challenge tuber of 'Pam Howden' in the spring, but I fell in love with this red one 'Maks Royal Ruby'. It looked like a red lotus.
Entries arrived early in the morning before the botanic garden was open to the public, but by 9:30 the exhibition hall was full of flowers and three teams of judges started with some sections as the doors were closed.
Everyone sat outside in the hall while the judging proceeded.
Doors opened to the public around noon, when everyone poured in. It was interesting to see police having to direct traffic down on the main road as hundreds of cars filled the lots at the botanic garden. Tower Hill was prepared, even having an ambulance ready (which was needed- hopefully that gentleman is ok.). Big crowds require good prep and a staff which is ready for anything, kudo's to the team at Tower Hill for making this such a successful show.
The AA section was full, but maybe not as full as last year most likely due to the remnant of tropical storm Jose which tore through most New England gardens mid-week, breaking the larger dahlias. Now, this photo doesn't look impressive, but each bloom is about 10 inches in diameter. I heard the words 'Dr. Seuss' many times.
The judges had their hands full, obviously judging hundreds of blooms in short period of time.
The winners come out to the gallery for display where the public can view them up close. How many smartphones can you see here? I go to many flower shows, but I've never seen so many smartphones.
Even toy smart phones!
'Badger Twinkle' (why do all dahlias sound like stripper names?) grown by Chou Ho was a favorite with many people, including me - which reminds me, maybe I should show my favorite varieties which I might order for next summer. Here goes:
'Kasasagi' was a nice pom that I liked.
Another view of Chau's red waterlily 'Maks Royal Ruby' (this is probably a good place to mention another benefit when you join a dahlia society - members share their choice tubers!).
The appropriately named 'Barbershop' and 'Santa Claus' may not be show winners on the bench, but come on!!! Right?
Fimbriated types are always popular. Looking almost alien or like crazy hair do's from the sixties (Muppets?). This one is a favorite too - 'Pineland's Princess'. I already grow it, but as things sometimes go, it hasn't bloomed yet.
This one is crazy! 'Jennie'.
'Verrones Chopsie Baby' was almost blueish purple.
'Hillside Orange Ice', I've been looking for tubers of this one for a while now.
Black flowers are rarely really black, but this one was really popular with visitors. It's 'Black Spider', another appropriate name!
At the end of the second day, on Sunday, all the flowers are picked out and sold to visitors to help raise money for the society. Five dollar and ten dollar bunches were big and popular.
'Jomanda', a handsome example of symmetry, and a hard-to-find favorite amongst growers of show dahias.
A quick post as this is Wednesday and I need to get back into the groove of posting (at least) on Wednesdays agaimn. It's finally raining here, but while it is welcome, our second annual New England Dahlia Society show is this coming weekend at Tower Hill Botanic Garden, so you can imagine how rain can ruin a crop of fancy exhibition dahlias. Many have broken in this last gasp from Hurricane José, but I suppose the watermelons and peppers are happy.
My row of Jomanda holding up during the remnants of Tropical Storm José, their stems are stronger than most of my other dahlias. Show or exhibition dahlias are usually different varieties than those found at stores. You have to order early from specialist dahlia nurseries.
Joe had a hernia opperation last week and I had gum grafts done on some implants so the garden is looking horrible, except in macro shots. The dahlias that havnt been ruined by the rain, are looking gorgeous, and the vegetables are coming in by the truckload (mostly becasue of my book), but most are going to the womens recovery shelter near us because Joe doesnt feel like eating anything, and I cant eat anything unless it is pureed (if youve ever had gum grafts, then you know what I mean. My dentist told me that it may take 3 weeks or more to heal the roof of my mouth where they cut the grafts from. Right now, it's just as if I ate a scalding hot pizza - I know). It's not a good time for chili peppers to be coming in from the garden!
Need to go look for the tag for this dahlia, it may look perfect by this weekend when our New England Dahlia Society held at Tower Hill Botanic Garden.
The rain and wind has really brought many of the dahlias down so only a few are going to make it to the show. I tried to stake them as best as I could but learning to master exhibition dahlias is still challenging. I should probably just grow cut flowers instead and not worry about perfection and disbudding.
Some varieties like this fromal ball-type known as 'Skipley Lois Jean'. They almost made it for the show, but as you can see, the center is open showing pollen. It would be disqualified for being too open, but I may have enough of these to enter a five stem class. Fingers crossed.
The rain during the storm really helped how the ornamental kale looked (as well as the fennel pollen).
Kiss Me OVer the Garden Gate or Polegonum orientale continues to put on a show, it just keeps looking better and better, larger than the banana's which it is planted next to in my sweet spot next to the geenhouse and over 12 feet tall, the dangling flowers really look terrific now in September.
Speaking of the genus Polygonum this relative Persicaria amplexicaulis is generally a weedy genus but in the right spot, I am finding this genus most useful, especially in late summer. This one, a perennial species.
I had a big surprise when I went out to the greenhouse today - the cyclamen bed was not only in full bloom, but there was little to no foliage proving that my theory was right - if you don't water your species cyclamen when the autumn weather first arrives and allow the pots to just slowly uptake a bit of moisture from their pots which are sitting on damp sand, one can get pots of lovely cyclamen (sans foliage) which enhances their appearance.
This white form of Cyclamen hederifolium is particularly nice. No worries, the foliage will come soon now that I watered the plunge bed but most alpine plant exhibitors prefer pots that bloom without folaige.
I'm also learning that I don't need to repot my cyclamen every year or every other year. These have been in their pots for 3 or 4 years now and getting better and better. This is Cyclamen graecum, and while tender and it goes dormant during the summer like most other species except the trick here is to keep the pots on slightly damp sand, and the root make tremendous growth during the hot and dry summer (just like in their native Greece). Trying to pull a pot off of the bed is now difficult.
I've been so busy on my book. It's been crazy this week after Joe's hernia surgery and my gum grafts (so painful), the last thing I want to eat are any veggies, especially chili peppers (and we have so many this year!).
Joe picked various varieties of artichokes for the chapter on artichokes and cardoons.
The oriental radish shot is over, so I just piled my props from the garden on a plate to tease you with how pretty they are. They won't go to waste. Making Kimchi is on the schedule this week.
One more teaser for the book - watermelons after a photoshoot are making their way back to the kitchen. They wont last long even though we've been shooting melons for about two weeks now.
Late summer bulbs always remind me of hurricane season, and these habranthus and rain lilies are alway surprising us with a few extra blooms in the autumn. I keep a few pots on the gravel walks so that I dont miss them.
This Amarcrinum x is not only large, nearly three feet tall, it is sweet scented. So fragrant that the entire deck smells like sun tan lotion in the evening.
Late crops of lettuce now replace the tomatoes in the raised beds. Some of these will mature soon like these 'Winter Density' heads of lettuce, just enough for the kitchen in early autumn, but more varieties have been sown along with four types of endive, which are all planted in the other four raised cedar beds.
Around the garden, the chickens are segregated into two groups. The barred rocks stay in one coop with their rooster, and these Americanas hang out on the walk because there are only three of them. We call the two girls 'the twins' and the rooster is Joshua. Don't ask.
Our Indian Runner Ducks are laying so many eggs that we are giving them away to everyone we know. They are free range and enjoy running out back in the weeds and squash/melon beds. I hope they are eating all of the Asian jumping worms we currently have (I think they are).
One last shot of the deck window box - the colors are so different, especially with that thumbergia - I am so impressed with how well the vines did. I may do all of the windows this way next year.
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