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.
Meconopsis racemosa, one of the blue poppies so famous in the Himalaya.
...but, blue poppies!
I'm trying really hard to limit my Yunnan posts to just three, but given that I've taken so many pictures - forgive me if it creeps into four posts. After-all. Just the genus primula alone will need an entire post and that's not including Androsace. Then, of course, there is corydalis...and meconopsis (who doesn't love blue Himalayan poppies?)... and Podophyllum (Sinopodophyllum?) with all of those leaf patterns and variation...and Arisaema....
The blue poppies around Zhongdian were brighter blue in some areas, but identifying without a key was challenging. We first beleived this to be Meconopsis horridula, but the blue color wasnt exactly right and the pollen sacs were white, not yellow. Who cares - it was a freakin' blue poppy in the wild!
I think it will make more sense to group plants together in ways that arent just attractive, but perhaps useful to some of you - I know that I would love to see where plants in my garden are growing in the wild. I found it helpful to see so many ArisaemaL growing in full sun in meadows for example. The same goes for rhododendrons. Here in western China, just a square meter of woodland can inform a garden designer in ways one could never imagine. Indeed roscoea, rodgersia, cyprepedium orchids and meconopsis blue poppies could all grow together as companion plants.
Who am I kidding. Meconopsis? Not in my garden! Beleive me - I've tried, but we are just too hot and humid in the summer. Still, my planting schemes will improve now that I've seen so many rhododendron forests loaded with rare plants.
Other meconopsis species were easier to identify, like this M.henrici growing near 12,000 ft. Not blue, a violet meconopsis is just as nice.
Yellow meconopsis were a bit more common, but still very special (by common, I mean we saw about 10 plants). Meet Meconopsis integrifolia, growing at 13,000 feet. Still very special and 'squeal-worthy' amongst we plant geeks.
At higher elevation even more meconopsis.
Iris barbatula in a meadow on the Zhongdian plateau. We saw so many iris species that I just gave up trying to ID them all.
Lloydia ixiolirioides was new to me but what a beauty.
Lillium souliei first fooled me into believing that it was a fritilaria, but not - 100% lily, with a single bloom often emerging from a low rhododendron in high, alpine meadows.
Here you can see how frittilaria-like Lilum souliei is.
Lilium euxanthum on Baimashan.This lovely little lilly is much smaller than it looks. At around an inch and a half, it's byno means a tall, regal lily but it did appear on this one snow mountain in great numbers.
Low growing rhododendrons at around 15,500 feet made it difficult to hike in, not to mention the thin air - this was one mountain where I needed to rest and couldnt go much higher due to thin air - but the lilies called me.
So similar to the above lily yet so different. Lillium lophophorum has fused petal tips that makes each flower look like a Chinense lantern.
It too is a small lily. Thumb sized.
I rested with our drivers for a bit. I was surprised at how quiclly they could build a fire for lunch every time we stopped. Sliced pork fat cooked on a flat rock, yak butter tea to wash it down with. Not as bad as it all sounded #EatLikeATibetan.
This plant fooled us. Was is a gentian? Nope (but close). A lily? No. A Frittilaria? No. Meet Megacodon stylophorus - a beautiful plant with a name more like a Transformer than a gentian relative.
Tipping up the blossom and the Megacodon was even more beautiful.
There were plenty of Frittilaria though. This one I never identified. Any ideas?
The lily relatives continued. I only know this one from photos from photos posted on Ian Young's Bulb Log, an influencial reference site for me ever since Ian started posting his bulb pics ten years or so ago. If you've never visited it, check it out here on the Scottish Rock Garden Club's site.
Oh yeah.This plant is a bulbous beauty, right? Nomocharis aperta will always be on mywish list (I did try growing this lily relative once, but failed.).
Clematis out in the wild?You bet. So many to share, but this C. chrysocoma was sweet. Even though on this rainy day most harboured leeches.
On sunny days, the climbing clematis species that tumbled through evergreens and shrubs reminded me of old Heronswood catalogue descriptions where Dan Hinkley waxed on about how to properly plant clematis so that the vines could grow through shrubs - yeah. Like this. Exactly. Noted.
Clematis montana blooming throughout a fir tree.
Orchids were everywhere so just a few ladyslippers. Cyprepedium yunnanense.
Mountain villages in NW Yunnan are remote and quiet.
At most every Tibetan or Bhudist shrine prayer beads and cards could be seed and heard.
Paeonia delavayi,just to add to the garden-like feel. I mean- growing amongst Ppodophyllum, Paris, Polygonatum, Rhododendron and Roscoea. I know,right?
I just remembered that maybe you might not be familiar with the genus Roscoea. A ginger-like bulb, which I went a little bit crazy about growing a few years ago, grows in certain areas in Yunnanasif sprinkled around the woodlands and meadows.
Thalictrum yunnanense with raindrops.
In my very American mind, I imagined Kunming to be a small town and Shangri-la to be...well...'Shangrila-like'. The truth is that Kunming houses millions of people(we were told 7 mil.but that's the population of Hong Kong, so it seems high). Still, it is a very large city not unlike Boston (if Boston had Las Vegas style lighting on the buildings and the worlds 5th largest airport). Shangrila was far from small as well, but I was prepared for this as the village (or town) had a fire in 2014 which destroyed nearly half of the old town. The rebuilding continues with the Chinese government enforcing a new very Tibetan aesthetic to all of the new buildings.
I suppose that it'sm not unlike Aspen or Vail (mountain towns trying to attract tourism dollars) building hotels that look visually 'right' within the environment. As a designer, I can understand such restraints, but again, I wasn't prepared completely for the doses of modernity. The contradiction it seems is very 'Chinese' however. KFC's next to chicken feet vendors, or jewellery stores where Yaks wander in off of the street. Much of China is like this - after all, the cultural revolution was only 40 years ago and there has been tremendous growth in just the past 20 years.
Our first week involved botanizing at high elevation but by not 'high by Himalayan standards - around 10,000 feet, which is the average elevation of the Zhongdian plateau around the city of Zhongdian (Shangri-La City). A few day-trips would eventually acclimate us to the much higher mountains near Shangri-La such as Shika Shan (4400m) which we would eventually botanize on a full-day hike down for 7 miles. The high alpine meadows full of primula and dwarfed rhododendron species leading into denser and taller rhododendron forests became a highlight of our entire trek.
Podophyllum hexandrum on Napahai
The plants on these first few days were spectacular, even though 10,000 feet to 14,000 feet is relatively low by Himalayan standards. Below treeline, there were woodland plants like Rodgersia, Podophyllum and Cypripedium orchids growing amongst geophytes (bulbs) like lilies, Nomocharis, Lloydia, Roscoea and Arisaema.
The foliage patterns on various podophyllum was immense and I became a bit obsessed with trying to capture as many different ones as I could. This striking one looked even better along side the lime-green Euphorbia blossoms.
I wish I could have brought home a selection of just the many selections of podophyllum.
I've been home a day and a half now from nearly a month in China. Clearly I am recovering from jet lag after more than 20 hours on flights over three days (I wrote this post twice and then somehow forgot to save it! SO I lost it.) Third time is a charm, right?
Over the next few posts I will attempt to summarize some of the highlights of this trip to what Frank Kingdon Ward called 'The land of the Blue Poppies' (yes, we saw a few those amazing Meconopsis species), but all of. the floristic wonders in this remote part of China are immense, and covering all of what we saw will be impossible - as I have a few thousand photos -probably enough content for many posts. I will just share the highlights, probably saving the juicy details for the talks that I will be giving about this incredible trip.
Contradictions exist everywhere in rural China. Our luggage arrived at our inn in Lijiang old town this way.
So, some of you were wondering "Why Yunnan and western China?". The answer is simple. This part of the Himalaya and the high Tibetan plateau is floristically one of the most diverse and species-rich places on earth. Why wouldnt any plant person want to come here? I will admit that it was ajourney and an adventure, and while nothing as adventurous as the orriginal 19th and early 20th century explorers encountered, the ten of us still found parts of the trip challenging,beit high elevation and altitude sickness, or something as mundane as a lack of ice and only warm beer.
An open air restaurant in old town Lijiang at least kept us dry in the early monsoons which were plaguing much of south west Asia a month early this year.
Our inn was old, and romantic with the sound of pouring rain running off the roof, and these open hallways with langerns. It was as if I stepped back a hundred years - both in the good and bad way!
A peak into a home in Lijiang.
For the first few days the monsoons drenched everything and everyone. Sometimes even too much for umbrellas. but not for the live fish in these plastic bags outisde ofa local market.
This alley leads to Joseph Rock's house, just on the left. A fascinating bit of history that still wasnt too commerical to experience.
Joseph Rock's residence featured an outside alley and door through a gate which lead to a courtyard. This is the view from the inside.
From the outside,Joseph Rock'sresidence looked like this. Almost as if he was still here with Donkey's drinking water from a well, the scent of incense and even live pigs.
Inside Jospeh Rock's home were photos and paraphenalia that the locals still use as a bit of a museum to help raise money for this tiny village.
We sae 'low' elevation plants (well if 10,000' can be considered low!) like this Thermopsis barbata on the Zhongdian plateau -it had nearly black flowers...
...and high elvation plants like these Sausaurea species at nearly 16,000'.
We were able to fields of primula, like these P. sikkimensis both at high and lower elevations. In fact, we saw primula almost everywhere in every color.
These Tibetan borderlands are home to so many favorite genus like Primula, Rhododendrons and alpine plants, Well collected over a hundred years ago by the names we all know like Wilson, Ward, Forrest, Farrer (even Dan Hinkley and Darrell Probst for that matter), we were not really looking for new species as we were looking to see something very special instead - something few modern plant collectors ever see - a chance to see these areas in full bloom rather than in the autumn, when most seed collecting happens. So how could I turn a trip like this down?
The great bend of the Yangtze River.
Incense at a monastary scents the air.
Our trip leader was Panayoti Kelaidis from the Denver Botanic Garden and NARGS.
This trip is the third under the umbrella of the NARGStours (North American Rock Garden Society Tours a group which I have been president of for the past 5 years, but now retired from). All participants are NARGS members however and each cames with a special expertise about a specific genus ranging from Corydalis to willows or Primula to woody plants. Panayoti Kelaidis (of the Denver Botanic Garden and currently VP of NARGS) acted as our tour leader which made for even a more extraordinary experience.
I rest briefly (to catch my breath?) at 14,500' on Shikashan, Snow Mountain in NW Yunnan.
In Shangri-La (once known as Zhongdian) Tibetan monestary's and prayer flags add to the motif's everwhere you look.
Prayer wheels at monastary's and even at sacred mountains became a daily exercise routine - must spin ever one.
Rhododendron wardii, a rare yellow rhododendron only found in this area around Shikashan Snow Mountain in Yunnan. We were fortunate to be there during peak bloom and even sunshine - this part of the country has the cleanest air in China.
The upper meadows of Shika Shan in bloom with many small rhododendrons. It was hard to manage our time hiking down the 14,500 foot mountain to get to the bottom before dark, but treasures were everywhere.
At lower elevations many plants proved to be common in our gardens at home, from rodgersia to polygonatum to lilacs. Scotty Smith from Denver examines a lilac species looked over by Panayoty and Jeff Wagner (Colorado)- our 'woody' guys.
While I spent time in Beijing up front and then a few days in Kunming, much of our focus ranged from the lower right of this map of NW Yunnan to the upper left ending up in Dequin.
A random photo of lunch? We were well prepared for changes in diet and food, and knowledgable about avoiding fresh veggies and driking water that wasnt bottled. Still, as a foodie, I ventured out trying to experience everything.
Mangosteen at a local market. Sweet and delicious, we limited out fresh fruit consumption to that which could be peeled rather than relying on washing.
Mop handles were just as attractive as some of the plants.
Hygene varied of course, in one village all dishes from restaurants were washed this way.
Because this garden we live in is 3 generations old, almost every plant has a story associated with it. Gardens are really living time capsules of memories, emotions and full of personal bits of nostalgia and sentiment.
I promise that I won't get too sentimental. Really. But today was one of those days that you dare think about. While rushing around to buy leech-proof gators for Yunnan at REI (they didn't have any nor have heard of them) and while packing up baby pheasants for folks who bought them from us on Craig's List, I got a phone call from my brother that my sister had died.
Cindy was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer last Thursday after ruling out a host of other cancers we needn't think about, so she was suddenly getting iller and this wasn't a complete surprise. Cindy and I were close so I was the first to know when my brother called me. Closer to me in age than any other sibling we always had a special relationship. We shared many traits - the same comfort foods, a love for old 1930's and 40's movies (screwball comedies), cooking, gardening (not exactly at my level though!), and lots of childhood secrets, inside jokes and hopes. Of course, I will miss her dearly. We are all planning a private service for her in the autumn when my other brother can get here from the west coast, perhaps near her birthday in October.
I adore the scent of geraniums (pelargonium sp). Not everyone's thing, I know, but every few years I like to build a collection that will bloom through the summer in the greenhouse.
I leave for China this weekend, which will now more than anything help keep my mind off of all of this. Cindy was anxious to hear about my trip when we spoke on Sunday, so I felt that it should still go on.
Memories of rhubarb stems dipped into a bowl of sugar should bring back memories for anyone raised on a farm or with a large garden.
For those of us close to a garden, or for those of us who were raised in a garden with siblings, or parents and grandparents- we often associate memories with certain plants. I think we often underestimate the nostalgia aspect that plants offer us. Sure old trees and scented shrubs can live forever, not unlike an old piece of treasured furniture, but even the scent or appearance of a flowering plant in the garden can be like living history.
I often imagine that an old rose or flowering plant like a scented violet mimics exactly the precisely same scent that perhaps Lincoln or Josephine experienced. Plants offer us each season with a fresh re-fresh. I am certain that while in China visiting the home of Joseph Rock or following in the footsteps of Frank Kingdon Ward that I will see many of the plants that these and other well-known plant explorers found which now grace our own gardens.
A Davidia involucrata bloomed this year in our garden (it's third blooming in 30 years), and I imagine that I will see it too in bloom in China. Not often seen in most gardens as it is one of those trees more likely found at a specialist nursery and not at a big box store, the Davidia, or Fabled Dove Tree had large, white bracts or leaf-like structures surrounding their blossoms which hang down not unlike handkerchiefs (or, to be more relevant- not unlike dryer sheets. but 'The Fabled Dryer Sheet Tree' just doesn't have the same 'ring'.
I call this barrel the old goose bucket, for when I was a kid we had a goose that would swim in tiny circles in it, clearly forbidden from the chicken yard. Today, Joe has planted a lotus in it. It should be beautiful come August.
Lilacs, bleeding hearts, tiny white bunches of Indian Pipes in the woods, peonies which she would make bath oil from, and so many herbs. I am realizing that so many plants like rhubarb remind me of her that it will be difficult to forget the association, but that's OK of course. Memories are good things.
I leave for China on Saturday, to the exact areas in Yunnan were the Davidia or Fabled Dove Tree was first discovered. Ours bloomed this year as it never has bloomed- full and covered with white bracts.
Alpine Glow, a tiny red tropical rhododendron, or Vireya. It has to live in the greenhouse here but often surprises us with its tiny flowers in June. Ironically a red cardinal has made a nest inside of the greenhouse, flying in and out of the vent every day to feed its young.
Yellow rhododenrons bloom near the greenhouse. This R. 'Narcissiflorum' has a double'hose-in-hose' type flower and is deciduous.
Plantsman Dan Hinkley often wrote about the many benefits of the genus Cardamine, which inspired me to start collecting many of the species nearly 15 years ago. I believe that this is Cardamine macrophylla, from a Crug Farm collection (number BSWJ2165a) from Singalila Ridge in the northern Indian HImalaya, but it appears lighter in color from other clones available. It's a tall and later flowering Cardamine, at 3 feet, but still very impressive for a plant from the cabbage family.
Ou homing pigeons are nearly ready to be released, as it has been a year since we obtained them and their many youngsters are now assimilated and will recognize this coop as home.
The Ring-Necked Pheasants have been productive as well laying dozens of eggs most of which have hatched into some of the quickest chicks imaginable. Faster than terriers and foxes combined.
As if I have nothing better to do, we have undertaken the construction of a gourd tunnel (inspired by our visit to Amy Goldman's famous and lovely gourd tunnel in upstate New York on her farm). Our's will be quite different, and like many projects I get involved with, has become larger. It will be an 'X' shaped trellis or arbor, really. Extending in four directions around our old koi pond that has been there since 1920. At one time there was a grape arbor next to this, so I imagine that this too will house grapes once our fascination with Asian gourds passes. Give us a year.
I almost want to paint this 'gourd tunnel - meets - grape arbor' with a coral or cinnabar colored paint to but its form will be more Arts & Crafts than anything generically 'Asian', and certainly it's not Japanese or Javanese. White will probably be the color once the gourds attack it (they are already started in the greenhouse), so it will be a fall painting project.
The stone alpine troughs are in peak bloom this week. Check out this very tall Saxifraga longifolia which, as a monocarp bloomed last year, but its suckers all extended the bloom this year as it sometimes does, in a very-Wisley-like display.
Well, folks, this will probably be my last post until I reach China. A few days in Beijing next week, and then off to Yunnan. Hopefully my VPN will work and I will be able to post live from there, if not, then I will recap once I return.
This past weekend we hosted our annual party for the New England Primrose Society. The National Show was held in Alaska this year, so attendance was down a bit, but we still had just over 20 plant geeks walking through the garden and enjoying home-cooked food and wine. This event always seems to kick off our gardening season.
So here's the thing about not working in an air-conditioned office with beige carpets and cubicles - on days like this - mid-May, bright cobalt blue skies, 75 degrees, chartreuse new leaves on the trees, scarlet tanagers and Baltimore Orioles singing and making new nests, well... you get it. But here's the other thing about not working a 9-5 job - you never have an off button. At least I don't. So blogging has seemed to slipped by me since in April I wrote: "hey - I'm back". No worries, (not that you are - I read somewhere this week that so many bloggers spend time apologizing for not posting for a few months when really their readers don't care or even notice.). Let's just say that it's spring, and I do have some exciting announcements.
The garden out by the greenhouse still needs to be planted with tender plants and annuals but as you can see - a giant Echium that spent the winter in the greenhouse in a pot is towering over 12 feet tall delighting the hummingbirds!
First, I am working with Darrell Probst on his breeding program (part-time). If you don't know Darrell - read any description about Epimedium in the Plant Delight's catalog. Although, Darrell has moved on-to coreopsis big-time, and another new genus' that I can't discuss, what I can say is that a few days a week I am helping him sow seeds, take cuttings, do some marketing and other tasks as really - it's all product design and in my wheel-house in many ways.
Some of Darrell Probst's past introductions include this wonderful Epimedium 'Pink Champagne' You can find it here.
Darrell and I have known each other for about 30 years believe it or not, from my early involvement exhibiting with the horticultural society (Worcester County Horticultural Society), his past wife and still friend Karen Perkins who now runs the epimedium nursery he started (it was featured in last months issue of Better Homes & Gardens, if you saw it). So, it's a small world. Partnering with Darrell is both fascinating and educational for me as well. I am learning so much about cleaning seed, propagation and the entire business of patented plant production. Touring fields with buyers, propagators, plug-growers and marketers from big retailers, as well as the Dutch growers is interesting, and I can see so many parallels to any product development that I had my hand in, in the past (the toy industry). Look for me at Cultivate 2018 this year, new ads and promotions for Darrell's plants and in other surprising placed. I can't wait.
The tree peonies survived our harse winter surprisingly well which has surprised me as I usually protect them from the cold with burlap and styrofoam rose pots. This year not a bit of winter-kill and 14 flowers on this one.
Speaking of Better Homes & Garden's - you can look for me in the next issue as Tovah Martin wrote a great feature on my sweet peas last summer and I just saw the photos from the shoot and the layout - it really looks beautiful. Even Daphne (Doodles our Irish Terrier) got in a shot. It appears in the July 2018 issue which, believe it or not, will be out in a few weeks in early June - you know how magazines go!
In the greenhouse, the tender rhododendrons such as this vireya 'Alpine Glow' are blooming.
Now - speaking of June. I am heading out on a major trip this June - the day after Joe and I attend the New York Botanical Garden's Conservatory Ball as guests of our friend Amy Goldman (I can't wait - even though I am not a tuxedo-type of guy (OK, I am). I am full-on aware that these social events in NYC are really all about the dress. I mean - REALLY about the dress. So we dudes got out of it with little stress.
English Spencer Sweet Peas ready to plant out for a consulting job I am doing in Vermont.
This June I am off botanizing in Yunnan and Tibet! A trip of a lifetime for me.
The day after this event I leave for Yunnan, China for a month. I decided to tag along with some fellow plant people (about 10 of us including Panayoti Kelaidis) to botanize for three and a half weeks in western China, Yunnan province and in parts of Tibet. I hope to be able to access through a VPN the Internet so that I can post, but if not (and, probably not given out local, elevation and remoteness not to mention China's limited access to Western Internet), I will surely fill you all in later. I'm spending a few days in Beijing on the way out, as well as Lijiang and other cities on my way to Shangrila, where our base will be. I've got my shots, visa and camera equipment all squared away. This trip is one offered through the North American Rock Garden Society Tours which I helped start a few years ago and which has become a reality through the efforts of many now on the NARGS Tours team at NARGS. Worth joining if you love plants.
For this project I grew more than 300 plants all as individual deep-pots with a single sweet peas in each pot, but then I potted a few up at com-pots or 6 inch pots with 4 plants in each to see if the might grow just as nice.
My parsley plants may look small, but this is the perfect size for planting outdoors. The big problem with parsley is a rather new one (which you will read about in my book).
I little note here about parsley, which I was reminded of while visiting some nurseries this weekend. If your parsley is blooming earlier in July recently, this is what is happening:
I raise my parsley from seed not becasue it is hard to find as plants, but because most nurseries now sell parsley too early - along with pansies, thus exposing it to cold temperatures which changes the physiology of the plant. They believe that they survived a mini-winter, and they then bolt - or go to seed by July. I start my parsley in the greenhouse and keep them there until late May when the weather has fully warmed up.
The genus Apiaceae is packed with biennials who behave this way. If you see celery, fennel or parsley- even cilantro at garden centers and they are not in the warm greenhouse, I would skip buying them. CIlantro, of course, while not a warm weather plant as most dont know, is a fast crop and should be direct sown anyway as the life cycle of the plant is about a month and a half. But seeds, and sow bi weekly rather than buying a pot that will die in a few weeks.
These are the types of facts you'll find in my veg gardening book. In my next post I will share more of these. I may call it the 7 deadly garden center sins will surely tick some people off, and while I don't want to do that to the hard-working folks at garden centers, some of this information should be shared. And of course, there are plenty of garden centers who do know what they are doing. Part of the blame needs to fall on us - the consumer as well, but sadly, new gardeners don't know any better. They are easily discouraged when their pot of basil with 20 seedlings in it fails, or when their stunted and over-stressed brussel's sprout plant stops growing. Even we have alot to learn - take brassica's for example. How many of us still think of cauliflower and broccoli as a cold-weather crop that we must sow in early spring? I can't even get my brother to listen to me!
For now -look for tiny parsley plants at mom and pop nurseries, or plan on starting some next year indoors (not to mention that the varieties available from seed catalogs are superior to those found at retail which will have a label that simply says 'curly parsley' or 'Italian Flat'.
Really? There are some very choice named cultivars out there (I am trialing some this year!). I am a parsley nerd, but also want to grow my own because it is one of the high-chemical plants if you dont buy organic (think: pollinizer. No one wants a caterpillar on their store-bought parsley, carrots or fennel - so the chemicals used on them is the same neonic used in tic and flea control for dogs (imidacloprid).
Don't want to be eating that! Hey, I use this same chem on some trees or in the greenhouse on ornamentals, so I am not against using some chemicals wisely as horticulture often needs a bit of help when it comes to hard to kill insects, but certainly not on food or pollinator plants. When I found out that imidacloprid is also recommended for some food crops yet is banned from garden sprays (in most states except lawn products), I became concerned. Why can farmers use it on fennel, carrots and parlsey but home growers cannot? It's because supermarkets will do anything to avoid freaking out a customer who finds a black swallowtail butterfly larvae on their parsley or fennel. Grow what you can grow healthy at home, is my motto.
Does this bring back childhood memories?
It's high rhubarb season here - so just a reminder to go buy you rhubarb plants for next year now at garden centers. You wont regret it! I keep a row out back just for rhubarb crisp and rhubarb water. It does nees high fertility though - some old books call for yards of rotted manure to be dug into the ground 6 feet deep. Dan Hinkley once wrote that he never beleived this until he examined the soil where they grow in Yunnan and admitted that it was some of the richest fine loam he had ever seen. Plants though, can last a lifetime once established. It isnt difficult to grow at all, but now that we manure ours, our stalks are as thick as a mans wrist.
Some raritities to share...A few treasures are blooming in the greenhouse like this Tropaeolum leptophyllum from South America.
Random, I know, but more pics. This Rhodohypoxis always signifies spring around here - at least in the greenhouse. A tiny, yet clumping South African geophyte it survives well under glass. I lost most of mine a few years ago to mice, but I am beginning to assemble a collection again. Oddly, having to buy them from a west coast nursery who acquired many of mine from a friend who shared them with the nursery, but I don't care!
Gotta love tropical looking wild plants from Aisa. Some red-leaved Rodgeria (left), podophyllum and giant-leaved Astilboides along the long-walk. These have seemed to triple in size now that a Japanese maple that fell down during a storm this winter has brought them more light. I am loving the look.
Speaking of camera equipment. My other little venture is that I have decided to try video. And I mean video in a big way. I know, I know, I hate my voice and seeing myself on screen but apparently, most everyone does. I decided to invest in good cameras, lenses and all the accessories so that I can, or might, start a Youtube channel or begin to move towards video as I think that is the future. I mean - we all are getting 4K video screens and with smart TV's we all are seeing Youtube apps on the big screen. Bear with me as this may take some time - there is a huge learning curve with editing, software, and skill, but I will admit that my first 'experiment' turned out rather nice - even though I was talking gibberish, just walking around the garden!
Individual sweet peas grown in deep-root cells show how the long roots like to grow downwards. Some are so strong that it's hard to pull them out of the pots. I cant imagine growing Spencer sweet peas in 3-inch pots of a normal depth. I've tried it and the suffer.
The garden is coming along after our very delayed spring weather which I assume many of you have experienced. What am I growing? Well, since I never announced my special projects, I am trying a load of new tomatoes from Amy Goldman's book The Heirloom Tomato where I bought from Seed Savers Exchange and other sources all of the tomato varieties that she rated highest. I am growing some sweet peas, but only a row for myself. I did plant a few hundred at a home in Vermont as I have been hired by them to help add some horticultural value to their properties as well as consulting on starting a flower farm business.
Another reason I grew sweet peas in these larger pots (these are 4.5 inch pots that are 6 inches deep) is that I wanted to experiment or trial selling some via mail order next year as so many of you find English Spencer sweet peas from imported seed overseas challenging to plan and grow. What do you think?
Our Davidia involucrata or Fabled Dove Tree is blooming again. I know I will see these in Yunnan but there is something special about this rare tree when it does bloom. The white bracts are difficult to see in the full sun but on overcast days they do look like white pieces of cloth (hence - the other common name "handkerchief tree" which is surely out of fashion now. I may suggest "Dryer Sheet Tree" for those wishing to propagate and market it - a more relevant name for today.
The greenhouse and garden has survived the harsh winter here better than expected. I don't know about you but while I did lose some plants, others seemed to do better (it hit 12 below zero here which broke a record, and there was little snow cover at the time). Things shouldn't have survived that, but our Davidia tree is in full bloom for the third time in 30 years. Something happened with that 'Snow Bomb' or whatever they called it back in January.
My book which has been my total focus for nearly a year now is almost done. Already on Amazon though for pre-order! Not sure why Amazon is cross-promoting 'Amazing Kittens" along with it, but whatever.
Lastly, my book. Well, as books go it is a time-suck. I just proofed the final copy and had to suggest photos again for each chapter. I have to admit that after reading it again after proofing and editing I sound smart (I know, right?). But really. This book reads like I wanted it to. I felt that a book on vegetable gardening needed to be useful and informative. I don't want to criticize other books out there as many are good, but I felt that if I wrote one the bar had to be raised, and it seems, to me, at least, that this one exceeded that. I'll wait for you folks to decide naturally, but it is already on Amazon for pre-order even though it isn't published and released until December. For now? I have a few hundred captions to write!
In the greenhouse, primrose seedlings are taking off. These are an easy-to-grow species Primula elatior.
Primula elatior will look like this which is blooming now. These are not as common as they once were earlier in the 20th century in gardens but are worth seeking out. Few garden centers offer them (may I will?) as they must be started from seed and few consumers would ever buy them out of bloom making them difficult to sell at retail.
A new book arrives for gardeners interested in native plants - just in time for spring (if spring ever arrives!)
If you're like me, you are waiting and waiting for the gardening season to begin. Here in New England spring is a bit late arriving, which on one hand is helpful for procrastinators like me, but also worrysome as most of us know that it will probably swing from cold, snowy weather and chilly, near-freezing temperatures to hot and humid weather practically overnight! But it is a good time to catch up on reading and inspiration, and I can think of no better way than with a good book.
Just in time, a new book has arrived written by two employees of the New England Wildflower Society. 'NATIVE PLANTS FOR NEW ENGLAND GARDENS' by New England Wildflower Society's Botanic Garden Director MARK RICHARDSON and my good friend DAN JAFFE, propagator and stock bed grower for the New England Wild Flower Society who also photographed the book. I always enjoy books written by plant people, and since these two are horticultural geeks from a leading botanic garden and plant preservation society, well- you can imagine the valuable information contained within the covers of this book.
Dan Jaffe and Mark Richardson - authors of the new book Native Plants for New England Gardens at their book signing last month in Framingham, MA.
If you love wildflowers, native plants, ferns, shrubs, trees and other native plants and wildflowers of not just New England, but much of the northeastern US and Canada, this book will become a valuable asset to your library. You can find the book on Amazon. It breaks plants out by ecoregions for New England, but also by plants that are good for birds or shade, or if one wants to choose plants that are best as pollinators.
Most readers will find the book inspirational, and helpful in making planting lists for their Northeastern US garden. It proves to be particularly useful if one is planning to set-up a pollinator garden, but it also could be used as a field-guide of sorts, if one is in need of identifying wildflowers.
Mayflowers in our entrance garden of native woodland plants are seed-raised plants which have established themselves into a large colony that allows me to pick a few bunches if I so dared, even so, I rarely do.
A button from around 1915 promoting the campaign.
So after attending the book opening and talking with Dan Jaffe again, I became more curious about the New England Wildflower Society. I've been familiar with the society for years, after all, they are located not far from our garden but my knowledge of the society was slim. Mostly I thought of the society an organization that operated the beautiful Garden in the Woods, a public garden located in Framingham, MA about 30 minutes from use towards Boston.
After spending some time with their executive director Debbi Edelstein over dinner a few weeks ago I realized that while I certainly knew about the society, I had no idea about some of the many initiatives they have accomplished or are undertaking. Debbie shared with me a few (well, more than a few!) of the many projects, missions and even the amazing history of the New England Wildflower Society. To say that I was blown away might sound cliche, but its the truth.
I said: "I live just a half-hour away from all of this, and for some reason, I don't know anything about the history or these projects! It's embarasing! (then again, I;ve never been to the Arnold Arboretum either!). I now have a new appreciation for this old society which is much more than their well know 'Garden in the Woods' garden in Framingham MA, and more than just a plant society. SO much more. Consider the Seed Ark campaign - a 5 million dollar initiative to collect and permanently store the seeds of all the regions' imperiled plant species by the year 2020. Or their GoBotany website (OK, really, I should have known about that!). Pollinate New England (their response to the pollinator crisis) and Trillium collection which was granted a prestigious accreditation by the North American Plant Collections Consortium and the American Public Gardens Association Plant Collections Network (one of only 67 of the 500 plus public gardens in North America who have received this accreditation.
That said, their popular TRILLIUM WEEK is coming up soon (May 6-12). Visit and see 21 of the 39 species of Trillium - perfect for nature lovers, plant lovers and anyone who wants to get into spring in a hurry.
What I was most curious about however was how the society was founded and why. To know that story we have to go back in time a hundred and 20 years ago when few cared about wild flowers or native plants. Why should they? They were 'wild' and seemed endless.
In the early 20th century the (then) New England Wildflower Preservation Society took on its first mission - that of public awareness, sharing a vision of the future.
While I knew about some picking, as my dad would share with me what an issue it was even during his childhood in the 1910's and 1920's, I never realized the scale of woodland plant picking until I started looking at some old plant-lists from catalogs from the late 1800's.
I turns out, I sort-of knew some of the histories of endangered wildflowers as my dad was very active with the Audubon society back in the 1930's and 1940's, and he illustrated many of the environmental issues of that era in pen and ink for newspapers (A trip to one of our closets upstairs and all I had to do was to pull out some flat files and it wasn't long before I found hints of what was happening with our native wildflowers of New England.
Why save the wildflowers? Here is one example of a catalog from the turn of the last century - notice the Epigeae repens at $20 for 1000 plants. This sort of mass collecting was common through the 19th and early 20th century. Even today some wild-collected trillium and other woodland wildflowers threaten populations.
Debbi had explained to me that it was this indiscriminate picking wildflowers from the woodlands that became a rallying cry for the organization in the early days of environmental awareness (probably along with stopping the Victorian collecting of bird eggs and the collection of features for millinery use (hats) during the same period. Rampant wildflower collecting was quickly escalating and endangering the native populations. You can learn more about the amazing history and future plans as well as some of the many initiatives of the New England Wildflower Society here at their website.
I think many of us forget how the nursery business used to work a hundred years ago. While many of us bemoan the advent of commercial nurseries, patented plants, plant breeding and mass-market propagation (Proven Winners, etc) and new propagation techniques like micro-propagation, plugs flown in from across the planet, we forget that plants were often collected in the wild and sold via plantlists.
Particularly at risk were native woodland plants, which are often notoriously difficult to germinate and grow. Old plant catalogs often sold wild collected roots of rarities like trilliums, ferns and precious alpine or woodland plants that were collected in the forests of North America and sold both here and overseas. I dare admit here that there are a few nurseries who still might do this, but would never admit it, and I have heard rumors of even some well-known and respected plant enthusiasts who are still collecting plants like White Trillium (T. grandiflorum) for sale overseas to the UK where they are highly valued.
The fragrance of Mayflowers can be described as sweet 'like cotton candy', and with warmer temperatures, the pale pink blooms as they age are lovely.
Here in New England, there was a time when many gardeners would have dug a few plants especially the earliest wildflowers from the forests to set out into the home garden. If you were raised anywhere between Michigan, Quebec to the Carolinas you surely know about wild trillium species, lady slipper orchids, and bluebells and about the risks not just in damaging native populations but in trying to cultivate such plants in a home garden, and most will fail.
No flowers were as sought out in spring as were the Mayflowers, however. Most likely because they are the earliest blooming, sometimes in bloom as early as January but most likely by March. While not legally classified as 'endangered' they are a 'protected; or 'at risk' species in many states and provinces in the east where they grow on rocky outcroppings in acidic soil in open oak or pine woodlands. As such it is generally illegal and a fineable offense if one picks them.
Known by another common name 'Trailing Arbutus', Epigeae repens is precious yet rarely seen. Truly the first flowers of spring if not winter, their fragrant tiny blossoms are often hidden by the leaves of the forest have been treasured for centuries, picked by the earliest colonists who surely needed some hope of spring sometimes as early as January (I've even had them bloom as early as Christmas in mind winters). I am grateful for a colony growing in our front garden which came to us via a botanist in Quebec who had been propagating the genus by seed for years.
Our colony in the front garden is now nearly 20 years old but our soil is special here and undisturbed, highly acidic and under the cover of white pines and native blueberries.
For those of us who were raised in New England, upstate New York, Eastern Canada like Nova Scotia, or even in Wisconsin or Michigan, know about the legendary Trailing Arbutus or Mayflowers (yes, of the famed Pilgrim ship name).
Mayflowers also started a movement. One of which helped start the New England Wild Flower Society back at the turn of the 20th century. You see, most 19th century Americans were nuts about the Trailing Arbutus. Because it represented early spring, hopefulness and perhaps because it was pink and the only thing blooming in the woods, it's scent was considered romantic and valued in products ranging from talcum powders to bathing salts. It;'s image was featured on Easter greeting cards and was often the flower associated with Mother's Day. It's no wonder that young children couldn't resist picking a bunch or two from the forests for their dear mum when the entire world seemed brown and dormant.
It was the magic of early-blooming fragrant flowers from the woods that fueled a craze in the 19th century for Trailing Arbutus - Epigeae repens, or the Mayflower. It scented everything from talcum powder to soap.
The real damage, however, came from the early florists, hikers, and nurserymen who picked trailing arbutus by the thousands, if not by the millions to sell as garden plants. A common practice until the mid 20th century. This mission was magnified by the early New England Wildflower Society then known in 1900 as the New England Wildflower Preservation Society. which was founded in 1900 and which is the US's oldest plant conservation organization.
The risk Epigea faces is real, even more so today but not by picking as much as by its habitat being destroyed. Even our neighbor behind our house (who is clearly permit-averse), has plowed over and filled-in the wetland behind our house - all this for a swimming pool and a few sheds for his trucks and tools. I asked him if he knew that he was destroying some wetland habitat, but he just laughed. I would report him but it's also my position that neighbors don't do that sort of thing, so I am torn (of course, I am writing it here, though!). I can only imagine the plants that were lost here in our own backyard not to mention how often this happens elsewhere.
My dad who was an illustrator back in the mid 20th century often featured the picking of Mayflowers with a very similar message. Here is one of his earlier sketches from the Newspaper from around 1946.
All of this has reminded me of the drawing my dad had created for newspapers back in the 1930's and 1940's when the issue of picking wildflowers was still an issue. It's sad that 70 or 80 years later we are still seeing ignorant people destroying habitat. At least we arent indiscriminately digging up native plants as much as we were back then.
After a few month hiatus so that I can focus on finishing my upcoming book 'Mastering the Art of Vegetable Gardening' (Dec. 2018) I am back. I must be rusty at blogging as it took me three days to write this and then when I tried to post it this morning, I lost everything, and now have to rewrite the entire post. Well, maybe that will allow me to edit a bit more and keep this first 'return' post shorter.
The Hammaellis are late this year, as everything is due to some extraordinarily cold weather, and a very snow winter here in New England. What else is new?
This is where I've been spending my time lately. Sometimes for 14 hours a day for a few months. I thought that I would use my new office upstairs which I created out of a spare bedroom but it seemed that the new counter in the kitchen was nicer (and warmer as a radiator sits underneath this window~!).
Our exceptionally cold January held-back many greenhouse plants including the camellias which are just now starting to put on a show. It's so late in the greenhouse season that the sun is strong enough to burn them on sunny days but with late snow storms arriving every few days we cant put shade cloth up yet as it will hold the weight of the snow. Such as weird winter or spring.
This is how it looked two weeks ago with a dump of heavy, glue-like wet snow of just over a foot that broke and split most every Japanese maple and the following winds near hurricane force pulled down some hemlock trees, one hitting out chicken coop.
Last week, another foot of wet snow covering the onions in the garden and again breaking many trees. Luckily nothing hit the greenhouse.
Inside the greenhouse things are pretty toasty though as the radiant sunlight heats it even on overcast days.
The last camellia season is still welcome maybe becasue the snow is still falling outside? 'Margaret Davis' is a particularly nice one and this year it sent out a few all-white sports.
This camellia without a label is exceptionally floriferous this year. It's been in bloom since January.
The tiny blossoms on the tuberous nasturtiums from Chile are back again and welcoming/ No bigger than a pea they come by the hundreds on this Tropaeolum brachyceras.
Outdoors things are much later than normal. THe snow melts in just a day or two and doesnt harm the early flowering cobs of the Japanese Butterbur (Petasites japonicus ssp giganteus). A favorite mid-winter pollinator for the earliest bees/
Crocus love this weather, and these where bargain-basket 50 cent ones that I bought at Home Depot last January. They still grew and I planted hundreds becasue they were such a value. If these were tulips, forget about it, but often narcissus and crous can handle a bit of abuse.
Alpine plants though are designed for this weather. This saxifrgaga growing in a piece of limestone rock relishes a late snowfall. I've seen these in the high alps in July blooming in snow. If you love rare or engangered plants consider the high elevation saxifrages in a colletion (get them from Wrightman Alpines) or at one of the spring plant sales hosted by local rock garden societies. As anyone at a table at one of these sales and they can direct you.
Saxifrages as hardy and tough, especially if grown in tufa rock - a porour limestone rock in which once they are rooted and set into a trough garden can last for years. Most of mine are over ten years old, and while a bit of a challenge to find if you fine the right place for them, they are rather care free. These troughs that sit on our deck are basically left alone year round.
If you live in New York City or nearby, this is a great sale to hit. Alpine plants are not only important to save as our high-elevation zones are at risk from climate change and skiing resorts, these plants are perfect city rooftop or terrace plants (after all - tall buildings are just like mountains). These are plants that can handle wind, severe weather and most anything a balony can throw at them. They talke some knowledge to master but it's fun and interesting. Consider joining your local chapter of the North American Rock Garden Society as well (Far more than rocks! The society brings together folks who love woodland plants, native species, trees, shrubs, bulbs, ferns and most plant geeks join too!).
In teh veg garden the first crop bold enough to face the weather has been the perennial bunching onions.
In the greenhouse, I've revised much of what I raise from seed given new knowledge which I write about in my book. I've stopped raising brassicas in early spring, no brocolli, cabbage or brussels sprouts once I learned why we shouldnt sow them now and things like snapdragons are kept dry between waterings to encourage thick stems.
Parsley is a fav around here, but I learned much about researching parsley. I am growing six varieties as there are many fine types, and none are available at retail it seems. I want top chef restaurant quality. These won't see the outdoors until the temperatures warm to above 60 degrees, for I dont want parsley that will bolt and go to seed by July like those plants being sold right now at the nurseries will. Parley and fennel will stop growing foliage and bloom if plants are exposed to temps below 50° F for even a few days. Pansies yes, parsley? No. Are you listening Lowes and Home Depot?
One thing I learned last year was that chile pepper enthusiasts often save some types indoors, wintering them over in pots to continue growing the following season. It works best with the tepins and the rocotto-types, and mine are just starting to come out of this false dormancy. Kind of amazing.
The Reticulata Group Iris often sold in catalogs as simple 'Iris reticuta' are early blooming bulbs that often emerge just after the snowdrops. "Katherine Hodgekins' is a perennial favorties of many gardeners, and this one is no exception.
The species or snow crocus 'Prins Claus' is in a pot, but while hardy enough for the snowiest spring weather, in the greenhouse it can be apprecieated at a completely different level. It looks like a catalog photoshoot subject here.
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.