Hardening Off

Onion, sorrel, and parsley awaiting there turn on the potting bench.

Onion, sorrel and parsley on the potting bench awaiting their garden debut

With the price of nursery plantings heading north of the Pole this year, there is every impetus in the world to grow your own annuals and vegetables from seed. (For a complete how-to on that process, click HERE)

But now what? Your seeds have sprouted, your new little plants are showing promise, are they ready for the garden? The answer is a big “no.” There is a VERY critical next step to this process that you skip at your peril — hardening off. Essentially, your seedlings need time to adjust to the temperatures and light levels outside of their cozy indoor incubator. Place them directly out into the garden, and sun scald and death are likely to be the result.

During the Victory Garden years, we used large cold frames for hardening off, but the frames were difficult to open and close, and without close monitoring, inevitably I would forget to water the flats on warm spring days, often bringing entire batches of seedlings to a tragic end. A sprinkler on a timer helped, but still the process was bulky.

Coincidentally last year, in a quest to provide a better summer potting area, I had refurbished a wonderful old work bench, which has become my new favorite workplace in the garden:

workbench

(The incredible salvaged soapstone sink is another marvel and probably the most useful improvement I have ever made to the landscape, but that is a story for another day.)

The relevant factor for today’s post is that the potting bench has become my favorite place for hardening off. It’s out of the direct sun, but has full, bright light. It’s open to the air, so rain can fall on the plants, relieving me of some watering duties, and most of all, it’s convenient, in a location I pass by several times a day. The only drawback is that it doesn’t provide the thermal protection of a cold frame, but I have gotten around that problem by simply bringing planting materials out a little later from the greenhouse. The point here is that any open space out of the direct sun but in bright light will serve your hardening off purposes — nothing more elaborate is required. Don’t however, rush the process. A week in this open-air waiting room is essential before these little guys can grow up to be vegetable stars in the garden.

BTW: Don’t forget to find Michael Weishan & Associates on Facebook, where I check in several times a week with interesting photos and tips.

Mulching Made Eas(ier)

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Here’s a dirty little secret your landscaper would prefer you not to know: your annual application of shredded pine mulch is one of their highest mark-up activities of the entire growing year. Why? Because the process is highly labor intensive; the exact quantities of mulch applied are hard to determine unless you use an entire truckload, leading to up-charging (intentional or not), and the bloody stuff is expensive but barely lasts a season, requiring you to begin again next spring.

There’s a much simpler way: pine mini-nuggets in bags.

Now at first this may seem counter-intuitive. How can buying product in bags be cheaper than buying in bulk? The answer: it’s not. The difference however is that the mini-nuggets are made from bark (as opposed to shredded wood) and the bark — with its natural preservative properties — lasts from 2-4 seasons, not just one. Also, the bags are SO much easier to spread. Just rip them open and pour around your plantings, which is far less laborious than loading and dumping those wheel barrows full of mulch. And finally, the nuggets can be easily moved around delicate plantings with a fine kitchen broom. Trust me, it works like a charm, and keeps those clumsy workers from destroying all those emerging shoots. We started using these mini-nuggets in the perennial areas during my Victory Garden years, and I have slowly expanded their use to the entire property, eliminating shredded mulch entirely.

(As an aside, mulching, especially in perennial gardens, is really something you should do yourself, as I have never seen anyone be as careful with plants as the person who planted them. Mulching season is also the perfect time to feed new growth and prune winter damage, so if you’re physically able, this is one task you should do yourself.)

One caveat: it’s the MINI nuggets you want. Not the larger ones. I’m not sure what makes such a difference, but the large nuggets look entirely out of scale with smaller plantings and simply don’t form as nice of a covered surface. Also, you will find that after a season or two, the nuggets fade from UV exposure to a bleached wood color. This doesn’t affect their decay rate, but if you love that dark brown hue, you can lightly top-dress the beds in the spring to restore the color.

 

Legacy

Clivia (with their near cousin, the pink amaryllis, blooming in the kitchen.

Clivia (with their near cousin, the pink amaryllis) blooming today in the kitchen.

Legacy is an amazing thing. As a child growing up in the 70s, I was captivated by the TV gardener and garden writer, Thalassa Cruso. I’ve written about her several times before, so I will only add here that my debts to her continue. She, along with my grandfather, inspired me down countless new horticultural paths, some which still bear fruit today. One of the more spectacular is pictured above, the magnificent yellow clivia, first brought to my attention in the pages of Thalassa’s classic, Making Things Grow.

Since I  wrote about these plants and their history in 2010 (that’s kyl’ -vee -ah to you) I’ve continually wondered why we don’t see more clivias in American indoor gardens.  One barrier to popularity is certainly perceived cost, as a single small division of a variegated or rare color variety can easily go for $30-50. However, this is one investment the average indoor gardener shouldn’t shy away from. Clivias are extremely easy to grow. They require only dappled light, and because the leaves arise from a large, fleshy bulb, you can forget to water them for a week and never know the difference. (In fact, over-watering is the only sure way to kill clivias.) Each year after  blooming, 1-3 off-shoots will appear, which will eventually form into full sized bulbs, creating a massive floral display in the following seasons. With any other plant, you’d be tempted to re-pot as soon as the plant mass fills the pot surface, but don’t be in a hurry with the clivia. They resent being divided, and often will sulk for a year or two without blooming. The only other real trick with the clivia is that you need to mimic their natural winter cooling period. Nighttime temperatures must to dip into the 55-60º range for several months in order for the flower blossoms to set — much like forcing bulbs indoors. This shouldn’t be a problem though if you have a cool sun room, enclosed porch or greenhouse space to winter them in. When you see the flower spikes beginning to form, bring them back into the warmth and you’ll be treated to a month-long floral display.

A very lush reward for very little work.

Thanks again, Thalassa.

 

A Typical Spring Day

designersdesk

So ladies and gentlemen, in case you’ve ever wondered, this is what a busy garden designer’s desk looks like on a March morning. In addition to adding and amending to a stack of clients’ plans, I have a bucket load of seeds to get started in the greenhouse, including all the tomatoes to be planted this afternoon!

But before that, I have an announcement to make: we’ve added a Facebook page. From now on I will be updating that fairly regularly, both with content from the blog, but also with other interesting topical material I find along the way, so come “like” us over there to receive the latest tips and techniques. A Youtube channel is also in the works — but one step at a time.

Weather Whipsaw

crocusinsnow

Predictably, when the weather briefly moved into the 70s last week, my phone began to ring. Excited clients were wondering about getting started with planning (certainly) and with planting (certainly not.) A few seemed disappointed by my lack of enthusiasm for getting going. It’s not that I wasn’t looking forward to the new planting season. It’s just that I knew better than to trust Mother Nature. Our freeze-free date in this part of the world is April 20, almost a month away. Our frost-free date is in early May. And just as I suspected, the temperatures are set to plunge over the next five days with overnight lows in the 20s.

So what will happen to the plants that have already started to grow? It depends on the plant. Cold-hardy species like the crocus above have complicated measures within their cells to shift water outside of the cell walls, which prevents the cell itself from bursting. Other less hardy species lack this ability. Fortunately, nothing has really leafed out, but the buds are swelling on most of the deciduous shrubs, and there could be some damage there too, we’ll just have to wait and see. And as gardeners, we do a lot of that — there is only so much we can do especially in years of weird weather fluctuations like this one. But we CAN control our own actions, and that’s really the point of this piece. Go out right now and disconnect that water line you so optimistically turned on last week — before it bursts — and throw a cover over those pots of pansies you just finished planting by the back door, too soon, too soon! And make sure the covers are down on any cold frames or outdoor growing areas you may have. Real spring will soon arrive, never fear. But for now, just sit back and enjoy the last remnants of the winter weather show.

Biennial Pleasures

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Biennials feature heavily in this lovely cottage border.

There’s a whole group of wonderful plants that have fallen from favor in American gardens — biennials. The reason why is not hard to fathom, because there is so much confusion and misinformation out there about how to grow biennials that the average gardener just throws up his or her hands and heads for the far more comprehensible displays of annuals and perennials. Besides, who wants to invest in a plant that won’t even bloom the first year, and then dies the second? The answer to that question is you do, and here’s why: if you’re a fan of cottage gardens and wanted to identify one surefire design element that makes them “cottagey,” I’d argue it’s the heavy use biennials in these gardens. Because biennials seed themselves once established, they randomly appear in places where you’d never think to place a seed, but which bind and hold the more established plantings together in a wonderfully artistic fashion. In addition, many of my favorites, like Canterbury bells, hollyhocks, lunaria and foxgloves, bloom in that odd period right after the bulbs finish and right before the summer annuals and perennials start.

The dried seed pods of lunaria last throughout the year.

The decorative dried seed pods of lunaria last throughout the growing season and can be used in dried arrangements.

So what’s the trick to growing biennials? There are two, actually, and both very simple. Even though nurseries sell plants and seed in the spring, spring is NOT the time you should be interested in biennial species. Buy the seed now (and I would add, seed, not pre-started plants as they are expensive for species that so readily sprout themselves)  stick the packets in the refrigerator in an airtight container, and forget about them until August. (This is a Zone 6 recommendation; adjust the timing up or down depending on the mildness of your autumn weather.) Then, as the gardening season moves into fall, find a couple of empty locations in the border, and sow HALF the seeds directly into the ground with a light 1/4″ covering of soil. Mark the spot with a stake to remind yourself there is something there, and make sure the area is irrigated in dry weather. (Some biennials, like foxglove, have very tiny seeds, so you may wish to start these in containers and then transplant them directly into the garden later.)

So what about the rest of the seed? Put the remainder  back into the fridge until next spring, and then as soon as the soil can be worked, find a few more empty spots and repeat the process. If you revisit your fall planting locations, you will notice that your former seeds are now tiny seedlings that sprouted in the autumn, and then went dormant for the winter. These will bloom in the current season, which for clarity’s sake we’ll call year 1. The seeds you’ve just planted will bloom the next spring, in year 2. This double planting, which no guide ever mentions, is key to the process of getting biennials established in your garden: the first fall’s planting will self-sow for bloom the following year, year 3; year 2’s planting for year 4, etc. until the flowers appear every year as if they were annuals.

The second trick: be sure not to cut off the flower heads until the seeds pods have developed and opened. With species like lunaria, you’ll want to leave the decorate pods in place in any event, but you may be tempted to cut down the spent blooms of species like foxglove. You can indeed remove them, but not until the seed pods have opened. Then, as you cut the stalks, shake the pods out over the garden, randomly scattering the seeds to achieve that relaxed, cottage garden look.

Simple huh? Remember, you heard it first here!

Lessons from English Gardens for Americans #8: The Collector’s Garden

Last summer on our way to Scotland we stopped in the ancient market town of Ely to see the cathedral. Ely’s was one of the first of the Gothic cathedrals, and a trip from Cambridge through Ely, Lincoln and then finally to York allows you to witnesses the full architectural maturation of the English Gothic style. But as fate was have it, the cathedral was closed: Netflix had decided that Ely would be a great stand in for Westminster in its new series Monarchy, and place was totally roped off for filming. Luckily however, as a totally unexpected consolation prize, I stumbled across this magnificent little garden in the shadow of the cathedral close.

elygarden

This tiny space — and tiny it was, I doubt it measured much more 10 x 30′ — was literally packed with plants. Most were in pots, and almost all were either in flower, about to flower, or had some other striking characteristic such a boldly variegated foliage. I show you these pictures because this is the one type of garden, the collector’s garden, that can and does break all the standard rules of landscape design: there’s no real focus, there’s no axis, the space is cramped and over-utilized, the design totally lacks a color scheme and a half a dozen more. It is a collection, not a landscape. But it works thanks to the quirky passion of its owner, in the same way some over-the-top avant-garde artist will comfortably wear an outfit to a party that you and I would hesitate even to try on in the privacy of our own homes.

So today’s lesson is that “if you’ve got, flaunt it.”

And if you don’t, best to abide by the rules like the rest of us.

ely garden2

Frost Against the Panes

One of the most beautiful greenhouses in the United States, at Tower Hill Botanical Garden outside of Boston, which was built as a classical winter conservatory. Another of my hibernal favorites is Logee‘s in Danielson CT, where you can not only enjoy the oldest commercial greenhouses in the US, but also indulge your buying fancy.

It is in the dead of winter that the greenhouse is at its best, for then is the contrast of life and death the greatest. Just beyond the living tender leaf — separated only by the slender film of the pane — is the whiteness and silence of midwinter. You stand under the arching roof and look away into the bare depths where only the stars hang their cold faint lights. The bald outlines of an overhanging tree are projected against the sky with the sharpness of the figures of cut glass. Branches creak and snap as they move stiffly in the wind. White snow drifts show against the panes. Icicles glisten from the gutters. Bits of ice are hurled from trees and cornice, and they crinkle and tinkle over the frozen snow. In the short sharp days the fences protrude from a waste of drift and riffle, and the dead fretwork of weed-stems suggests a long-lost summer. There, a finger’s breadth away, the temperature is far below zero; here, is the warmth and snugness of a nook in tropic summer.

This is the transcendent merit of the greenhouse — the sense of mastery over forces of nature. It is an oasis in one’s life as well as in the winter. One has dominion.

But this dominion does not stop with the mere satisfaction of a consciousness of power. These tender things, with all their living processes in root and stem and leaf, are dependent wholly on you for their very existence. One minute of carelessness or neglect and all their loveliness collapses in the blackness of death. How often have we seen the farmer pay a visit to the stable at bedtime to see that the animals are snug and warm for the night, stroking each confiding face as it rises at his approach! And how often have we seen the same affectionate care of the gardener who stroked his plants and tenderly turned and shifted the pots, when the night wind hurled the frost against the panes! It is worth the while to have a place for the affection of things that are not human.

From The Garden Lover
Liberty Hyde Bailey, 1928

Care About the Environment? Get a Few Chickens.

chickens2

The girls on the prowl in the orchard. Woe to any bug they find!

I’ve had chickens on and off now for over twenty years (the off periods were the one or two times the fox got into the hen house) and I’m here to say that if you care about any of the following —  green living, minimizing your waste stream, sourcing food locally, organic produce, composting, organic pest control — then you need to get yourselves some feathered ladies to help you with your quests. Chickens are, to put in mildly, the best friend a gardener ever had, and here’s why.

• Chickens eat almost everything, and when I say everything, I mean it. Left-over pasta, garden weeds, vegetable refuse, spoiled food of any kind, dried out yogurt, bug infested grains — anything in fact that you might eat, and much you wouldn’t, say, like a turkey or chicken carcass left over from making soup. Yep, that’s right. Chickens don’t shy away from eating their cooked fellows. They love it in fact, and eat all of it, even the bones. Oh, and they eat egg shells too: gives them calcium to produce new eggs. In short, if you keep a small flock of chickens, your household food waste stream is eliminated, and converted into fresh eggs for your table.

My eggs

My eggs

• And let’s talk about those eggs:  bright orange yolks (not yellow) and whites that will almost whip themselves. If you haven’t eaten really fresh eggs, then you haven’t eaten eggs. In fact, this is perhaps the only downside to keeping your own hens: you’ll never eat those pale, pathetic store-bought eggs again — which by the way have been sitting around on average for over a month before you get them, plus whatever time they spend in your refrigerator. They don’t go bad, per se, as the egg is designed to hold itself vital for weeks, as the chicken only lays one egg every other day or so, and waits for a clutch of 8 or nine before deciding to sit. The problem is taste. After a while both flavor and color become seriously degraded.

• Chickens are the most avid bug eaters you’ll ever find, so if you have a problem with ticks, slugs, grubs or other crawling pests in your yard, simply let your flock out for an afternoon and the girls will take care of the problem for you. Caveat: if you have cultivated grounds, you won’t want to let them free-range unsupervised, as they will scratch up mulched beds and unearth new seedlings. My chickens live in a fenced enclosure 40′ x 60′. In the center stands a cedar chicken coop with a door that automatically opens and closes at sunrise and sunset. My 30-odd girls (and two roosters, one named Big Red, seen in the center of the top picture while still a pullet) roam about this enclosure freely during the day, and once or twice a week I let them out to roam in the orchard, where they eat bugs and any fallen fruit. If they are not disturbed in the coop or frightened by predators, they return to the roost every night by themselves.

• Chickens are remarkably easy to care for, and suffer few health problems if given plenty of water and good food. On average, my chickens live for three or four years, and each produces and egg every day or two for most of their lives. Eventually, they go barren, and if I were a commercial producer, the non-layers would be culled, but I figure what the hay. They’ve given me food and pleasure, and deserve to live out their lives in peace. Eventually they just konk out, and they wind up fertilizing a tree or shrub in the garden. Occasionally a predator arrives, too, which is sad, but part of the natural order of things (and many dangers lurk if you are a chicken, from hawks, to minks, to foxes, to coyotes, to raccoons, even untrained dogs) Small losses I suffer in sadness, but if the toll begins to mount, I step in and remove the predator. Chickens generally take care of themselves, and my main duties are providing supplemental grain to the feeder once a week or so, making sure the auto-watering device is on, and collecting the eggs (which I sell by the way, for $5/dozen) The only major task is the quarterly clean out of the coop, which becomes tricky mid-winter if there is a lot of snow. But I don’t mind this job, as chicken manure is some of the most nutrient rich around, and makes a wonderful “hot” additive to speed organic breakdown in the compost pile. (Don’t apply it directly to crops, however, as it is so nitrogen rich it can burn plants.)

• You don’t need a grand set up to start. Mine has gotten rather grandiose, thanks to time spent on the “Victory Garden” and years of improvements, but all you really need is a shelter, and an enclosed run. There are a million sites on the internet these days to help. Here’s ONE. You do however need to check your local zoning laws; most places allow hens, but some restrict roosters. A quick call  to your town hall will give you the answer.

Well, the fire is cracking in the kitchen fireplace, and I’m off to make a lovely little omelet for lunch with my own fresh eggs and produce. A terrible way to spend a Saturday afternoon, I know, but then again, you could easily share this fate with me, and I heartily suggest you do!

Ephemerality

 

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Gardeners carefully setting out tender annuals at Gordon Castle, Scotland, about 1900

Since June the tropical plants that winter in the greenhouse have been enjoying the summer weather outdoors. They are quite spread out — some in the orchard, others on the back terrace, the pool terrace, the parterre garden. Today however, on this lovely soft September day, I begin the task of returning them under glass. (Well, to be totally honest, under laminate, as the roof of the greenhouse is made of lexan, but no matter.)  It’s the 23rd time I will have done this here — somewhat incredibly — and deo volente I will be around for more seasons to come. But it did start me thinking about all the changes that have occurred in my garden, how in those 23 years so much has come and gone, grown up or disappeared, thrived or failed. The space I inherited from my predecessors in no way resembles the garden I will leave to my successors in this house, and sometimes I nervously wonder what, when in the due course of time I hand over the keys to this place, will become of all my efforts. Then I catch myself, and wistful resignation returns. The reality is that all my work will pass away, some elements swiftly, others more slowly, but pass they will, for gardening is the most ephemeral of all pursuits. In fact, ‘gardening’ almost defines the word ‘ephemerality.’ Just look at the pictures above and below. In the upper photo, two gardeners are planting out the large urns early in the season at Gordon Castle, Scotland. The one beneath is rear view of the same, sometime in the 1930s, with visitors walking the extensive grounds:castle gordonNow look again. This is Gorden Castle in 1952 from the exact same spot — just 25 years later. (The pictures, by the way, come from Ian Gow’s wonderful book: Scotland’s Lost Houses.)gordon afterWhat happened? Quite simply, the world changed. The huge 1700’s castle you see in the first picture was deemed too large and decrepit to maintain in the servant-less days after the Second World War. No one in the family wanted to live there, and certainly no one wanted the expense of keeping up the grounds, so the castle was simply torn down with only two of the minor wings remaining as separate houses, and the ancient medieval keep, which successive Dukes had preserved inside their ever-expanding house iterations, revealed once more.  The carefully manicured grounds, so primped and prized in the top photo, were plowed under for farmland. Finis.

And so it shall be here. In the due course of things, the next owners will surely make major changes, or, the world may change around them as it did for the Dukes of Gordon Castle, and who knows, the forest may advance over this land once more. Or meadow, or waste, or sea. But whatever happens, the one certainty is that nothing will stay the same. That’s the lot of a gardener, and over the years I have grown accustomed to that. My solace comes from remembering that we gardeners are merely the stewards of our land, and that our pleasures must come not from any mistaken expectation of permanence, but from the process of each successive day, and too, that our most enduring reward will be the simple knowledge that we tried to manage our personal corner of the planet as best we could — even if only for a day.