Drying Flowers

Blossoms of rudebekia 'Prairie Sun'– one of my all time favorite annuals which I grow every year from seed – set face down in the silica gel in preparation for drying.

Blossoms of rudebekia 'Prairie Sun'– one of my all time favorite annuals which I grow every year from seed – set face down in the silica gel in preparation for drying.

I was raised in a family where every penny needed to do double duty, so I learned early the value of preventing waste and preserving what you were given. These lessons followed me into the garden, where I’ve generally been pretty successful in maximizing nature’s bounty – my previous posts on harvesting honey and canning tomatoes are good examples of this kind of horticultural parsimony. There’s one prominent exception to all this however: the flower border. Every spring, I spend considerable time, effort, and money planting multiple beds, until just now they are overflowing with flowers – a luxurious bounty of color, form, and shape. Then in a few weeks will come the first frost and the product of so much expense and exertion will wiped away in a single stroke. While I’ve previously accepted this as the inevitable consequence of the gardening season, a few years ago I began to wonder: since I regularly harvested and preserved the offerings of the vegetable garden, why couldn’t I do the same with flowers? A quick trip one year to the local craft store in search of dried fall decorations, and the price shock that ensued, further motivated my mission. I was determined that at least some of these magnificent blooms would escape the grim reaper of frost. After a bit of investigation and a lot of trial and error (and, to be honest, some help from several on-air experts while I was filming The Victory Garden lol!)  I discovered that the process of preserving flowers is remarkably simple. Done correctly using modern methods, the results can be outstanding: masses of delicate blossoms that almost entirely preserve their original garden beauty.

Historically, of course, flowers have long been dried indoors, generally hung in bunches from the rafters. While this does a decent job for certain species like lavender and straw flowers, most plants with more delicate blooms such as sunflowers, daisies, dahlias, and peonies simply shrivel into a dusty brown mass when left out to dry. Fortunately, technology has come to the rescue in the form of silica gel. You’ve probably seen silica gel before, and just never paid much attention to it: it’s those little packets of white crystalline powder that are often packed with new electronic equipment to prevent moisture build-up. They’re included because silica gel has the amazing ability to attract and absorb water – which also makes it the perfect medium for drying flowers. When placed in silica gel, blossoms emerge completely desiccated and ready for use in dried arrangements, but unlike the hanging method, color and form are much better preserved.

Here’s what you need to get started: several cans of flower drying silica gel (this, and the rest of the following supplies can be found at most craft stores); an 8x12x4 (or approximate) plastic container(s) with sealable lid; florist wire and tape, and a pair of sharp scissors. (And, of course, a garden to cut from! While the beginner can utilize already established ornamental borders, the enthusiast will soon exhaust these, and require a larger, more specialized cutting garden.) Unlike the hanging method where only a small number of varieties can be used, silica gel allows for a much wider selection of flowers – everything from lilacs, roses and peonies, to sunflowers, salvia and zinnias. The only kinds of flowers that don’t dry well are those with soft, velvety, water-filled blossoms like iris. Experimentation, and a good guide, like Cathy Miller’s Harvesting, Preserving, and Arranging Dried Flowers (Artisan: 1997) will soon teach you which species work best.

The drying process is extremely simple. With your basket and scissors in hand, head out to the garden in the morning after any dew or rain has dried, choosing only those blossoms without blemish or damage. (This may sound obvious, but it’s not. The drying process magnifies whatever faults there are to be found in the bloom, so only perfectly formed flowers should be used.) In terms of cutting, all flowers essentially fall into two categories: those with head-like blossoms, such as daisies, roses and zinnias, and those with long, spiky blooms, such as salvia, Bells of Ireland, and lavender. Spiky blossoms are cut with stems as long as will fit in your container; head-like flowers are cut off with only about an inch of stem just below the blossom.

Once your flowers are harvested, they must be immediately placed in the drying medium. Pour an inch or so of desiccant gel on the bottom of your container; next lay your blossoms face up in the gel (except for daisies, etc, which face downwards, and spiky flowers, which are lain sideways) and then gently cover them completely with the silica gel. Be careful not to flatten down any upright petals of the larger, more three-dimensional blossoms such as peonies and dahlias, as the flowers will dry exactly as they stand in the silica. Pressed down, they will emerge a flattened wedge. Instead, carefully pour the silica gel in and around the various petals, supporting them upright with one hand if necessary so that flowers are standing in the silica gel as close as possible to the way they opened in the garden. The result will be a realistic three-dimensional, dried bloom. Repeat these steps until the container is filled, and then seal with the lid.

Exactly how long the flowers need to remain in the silica gel depends on the type of flower, the number of flowers in the container, weather conditions during drying, and a host of other factors. Once again, simple experimentation, and a good reference book will be your best guide. I’ve found from my own personal experience that 10 days is about the norm. If in doubt, hedge your bets on the side of a longer, rather than shorter duration. While flowers can be over-dried if left to sit too long in the gel, this is far less risky than removing them too soon. Taken out prematurely, the blossoms quickly absorb atmospheric moisture and begin to wilt. My first several attempts at drying actually resulted in failure for just this reason; eventually, I learned to recognize when the blossoms were completely and totally dry by their look and feel. I also recommend using several containers at once, filling them a week or so apart – that way, if you fail on your first attempt, you’ll be able to alter your methods on the next go-around. Another good tip: try, as much as possible, to fill the box with similar flower types that require similar drying times.

One of the most fun – and frustrating – aspects of drying flowers is that you never know precisely how things are going to turn out. The rudebekias on the bottom, for instance, are just perfect, while the ones toward the top have overly dried, even though they were cut and placed in the gel at the same time. Some sort of cage or support – this is an old file drawer inverted – is very helpful for supporting the brittle blossoms until you wire and use them.

One of the most fun – and frustrating – aspects of drying flowers is that you never know precisely how things are going to turn out. The rudebekias on the bottom, for instance, are just perfect, while the ones toward the top have overly dried, even though they were cut and placed in the gel at the same time. Another reason to cut and dry extras! Also, some sort of cage or support – this is an old file drawer inverted – is very helpful for holding the brittle blossoms until you wire and use them.

When you’re ready to remove your flowers, gently pour the silica gel into another container. (The silica gel, by the way, changes color as it absorbs water, generally from white to pink; when its completely depleted, it can simply be placed in a baking tin, and following the manufacturer’s recommendations, revived by a stint in a hot oven.) While it’s okay to allow a few silica crystals to remain on the petals, excess silica can eventually harm the dried buds and should be removed with an artists brush. Spiked flowers with stems are ready for use in arrangements. Individual flower heads without their stems, though, need to be given new ones using a length of florist wire: simply place the wire along the remaining inch of stem, and attach with a bit of tape. One final suggestion: because dried flowers lack foliage, you’ll need four to five times the amount of dried flowers than fresh in a similarly sized arrangement, so be sure to dry far more than you’ll think you’ll need – there’s no such thing as “excess” dried flowers. Also, “filler” plants, like artemisia or ornamental grasses, which are used for their foliage, not for their flowers, are extremely helpful in adding bulk to arrangements.

So what are you waiting for? That frost is just around the corner!


Happiness is… tomatoes!


Oh gleaming jars of glass, boasting your culinary wiles, is there any greater art than that locked behind those vitreous smiles?

Well, despite all the tomato disasters this year, I’m forced to send up a prayer of thanks to the gardening gods, for at the last minute, I was able to salvage some of the crop. The plants look awful – dead and decaying foliage and fruit in an almost complete state of collapse – but the urge to reproduce and salvage something for the next generation was so strong that the plants managed to ripen some of their progeny before being carried off. Only the earliest fruits that had started to form before the blight descended in full force managed to mature, but enough did to allow me to put up 30 quarts of tomatoes. This may sound like a lot, but it’s a fraction of the 100 plus quarts one would expect from seventy healthy plants. Still, I’m not complaining: that’s thirty quarts more than most folks around here, and far more than I had expected a month ago.

I did learn one interesting thing from this disaster: in the race to harvest the fruit before the blight infected it, I brought in tomatoes slightly less ripe than I normally would. The standard wisdom goes that you let tomatoes fully ripen for canning, but I picked quite a number early, when still orange red, rather than than the deep burgundy I would normally have waited for. As it turns out, this fruit is much easier to can, as the firmer flesh blanches better, and allows for fuller packing in the jars. And from what I can tell from sampling the product, there’s been no reduction in taste. Late blight, by the way, doesn’t affect humans, so there’s no worries about eating the fruit – it’s just a question of who get’s there first – you or the disease. Once the spores reach the tomato itself, it only takes a few days for the entire fruit to turn to brown mush. Frightening, really;  you can see why late blight was once considered a candidate for biological weapons.

Ah, well, on to more pleasant thoughts, like… fresh spaghetti!



Oh, It’s So GOOD to be a Turtle…


(Singing) Oh…… it’s so GOOD to be a turtle, on a sunny September’s morn!

I just had to share this picture with you. I found this little guy – he’s only 2″ long – earlier this summer – in fact, I almost stepped on him (or her) mowing the lawn. He must have just hatched, and was looking for water. Rather than send him to the big pond, where Mr. Heron just loves to encounter soft, quarter-sized baby turtles, I installed him in the upper courtyard fountain where’s he’s been for the last few months – having a good time, by the looks of it. Soon though, he’ll have to forage for himself in the big pond – Eastern painted turtles spend the winter buried in the mud underwater – not breathing for 5 months! – and I doubt there is sufficient cover for him up above. No worries though: judging from the number of painted turtles we have, he’ll be just fine, though perhaps the accommodations won’t be quite so comfy…

Enjoy the beach while the sun shines, little friend!


Thalassa Cruso Returns!

The indomitable Thalassa Cruso, doing a typical bit of "light" root pruning.

The indomitable Thalassa Cruso, doing a typical bit of “light” root pruning.

A few weeks ago I went to see Julie/Julia – which was terrific by the way – and I was reminded again how much I enjoyed watching PBS when I was a boy, and, how formative  good television could be on receptive little minds. But while Julia Child is certainly the best remembered of that generation of TV pioneers, she wasn’t the only great guru of the age. I refer in particular to Thalassa Cruso, the indomitable Brit who taught an entire generation of Americans, including me, how to garden. I will plainly admit to you: Thalassa Cruso was my hero when I was 10. I adored this woman, with her wonderful, no-nonsense approach to gardening that made you believe you could accomplish any horticultural feat if you really tried. Even the title of her show (and book) Making Things Grow, spoke volumes. You didn’t just let plants do their thing: you MADE them grow. If they weren’t ship-shape and all spit and polish, OUT they went in a brutal thwack of pot, or blaze of pruning shears. She was, in short, pure delight on the screen. I vowed I was going to be a gardener just like her, and one day at age 13, after years of watching, I summoned my courage to write to tell her so. Never in a million years did I expect an answer, but to my utter surprise, she wrote me back. My original letter to her is long-lost, but it’s obvious from the reply that I must have peppered my missive with multiple questions, which she kindly answered one-by-one in her usual methodical manner:

TH-2(For those interested, the story to the yellow clivia is explained in Thalassa’s indoor gardening guide, Making Things Grow, which by the way, I still use as a constant reference. And as another complete aside,  I managed to track down an offset myself, which sits today among my proudest horticultural treasures – but that’s the subject for another post)

Of course, I could never have imagined that one day this little Wisconsin boy would wind up in Boston, working for the same television network; nor that one enchanted afternoon, I would find myself filming in the very same studio, in the very same spot, where my gardening mentor had stood four decades earlier.

That level of cyclic karma is simply too boggling to even contemplate.

Those few golden moments in the studio, however, were probably the apex of my Thalassa Cruso love affair, for it remains one of my life-long regrets that we never managed to meet. By the time I arrived in Boston, Thalassa had retired to tend to family illness; and despite so many common overlaps – in addition to gardening, she too, had worked in Classics and archaeology) our paths never crossed. She died in 1997.

For those of you who weren’t privileged to have watched Thalassa’s original programs on public TV, or to have witnessed her hilarious appearances on Johnny Carson (not to be believed!) the last 40 years have been a desert. The master tapes, locked in the archives at the Boston studios of WGBH, had been filmed in an archaic video format that would have cost countless thousands of dollars to restore. While I was there as the host of The Victory Garden, I inquired many times about bringing these episodes back to the small screen, only to be told there simply wasn’t the budget for such nostalgia. I was thoroughly disheartened. Then one day, our producer announced that she had a present for me: it seems that somewhere along the line, a single VHS copy had appeared.

Hallelujah! I immediately ran and popped in the tape, and suddenly before me reappeared the sounds and images of my childhood, just as I had remembered: the familiar tinkle of the harpsichord to a theme of Corelli; the broad smiling face topped with bangs and bun; those inevitable and equally incongruous pearls; the perfectly clipped British diction that tolerated no fools, human or horticultural; that wry sense of humor, which never failed to make me laugh; even those magical, rustic swinging sets that made you just want to run out and build your own potting shed. Best of all, I discovered to my delight that Thalassa had stood the test of time: unlike old outdoor gardening programs where such common admonitions as tucking “double orange French marigolds in about the foundation planting,” or dusting all your crops with Sevin – “just in case” – have long since become taboo, most of Thalassa’s tips (she was one of the earliest environmentalists, after all) remain as valuable, and viable, now as they were then.

In short pure gardening bliss. A piece of TV’s gardening past preserved.

Or so it was – more or less. The VHS tape too was showing signs of age, and this casual copy (probably never more than an editor’s preview tape and never meant for preservation) appeared to be a mishmash of episodes, with scenes out of order, terrible sound and much buzzing and whirling. Still, it was better than nothing.

Then this past spring, on an annual whim, I popped the tape back into my last remaining VCR player, and I realized to my utter dismay that the tired cassette too was starting to decay. The picture began to twitch, the sound warble, and I feared I was on the verge of losing the old girl all over again. To arms, I thought, to arms! But I was quickly thwarted. No ready transfer mechanism was at hand, and how to get this half-hour program into modern format? After months of technical aggravation with millions of digital bits teetering on the edge of virtual extinction, I finally managed to swap sections of the tape back and forth into a functioning version, restoring, more or less, a whole episode, Bonsai. (Two other episodes exist in fragmentary form.)  And just in time, too: on the final pass, the VHS snapped and broke, never to be played again.

And so, by a single hair’s breadth (or rather tape breadth), for the first time in 42 years, may I share with you the indomitable, indefatigable, inimitable Thalassa Cruso!

Homage to Thalassa Cruso: Bonsai from Michael Weishan on Vimeo.

Welcome back, my dear Thalassa. I’ve missed you.


(For a more complete bio of Thalassa Cruso, see her obituary in the New York Times, or this wonderful 1976 article in People Magazine (yes, People, when it still had content, imagine!!))



The Storied Ivy

That headlong ivy! Not a leaf will grow
But thinking of a wreath…….

Elizabeth Barrett Browning  Aurora Leigh, 1856

ivy trimmer

I doubt the folks who designed this hedge trimmer ever envisioned such a usage, but it works like a charm nonetheless!

Looking for a task that was not too trying in yesterday’s 90º heat, I decided to trim the ivy that had started to completely cover the path from the back arbor. Historically this was something of a sweaty pain, one that required a good half hour or so on bended knee with clippers in hand – that is until I discovered one of the handiest tools in my garden, the little cordless B & D hedge trimmer, which neatly edges the entire 50’ length in about 1 minute. A quick rake, and I’m done. The only real problem I have now is throwing away the clippings, because with each sprig, I’m tossing out a bit of history.

You see, my ivy isn’t just any ivy: it has a very impressive pedigree. Many years ago, when I was researching my first book, The New Traditional Garden, I was given a guided tour of “Sunnyside,” the home of Washington Irving on the Hudson. Everywhere in his garden were luxuriant growths of ivy, which immediately caught the attention of someone like me who grew up in Wisconsin where ivy isn’t hardy. I remember remarking to one of the curators how pretty I thought the neatly trimmed beds were. “Oh,” she said, “it’s a bit of a chore keeping them in check, but they do look nice when they’re done. Speaking of which, would you like a few cuttings for your own house? I think Washington Irving would approve: He himself received the original sprigs from Sir. Walter Scott.”  And so my visit ended with three pieces of ivy carefully wrapped in wet paper towel. It was a near thing getting the ivy home, as this was at start of a three week long trip, and several times the ivy was almost crushed, lost or tossed, but eventually the slightly battered sprigs made it back to my garden, where one eventually rooted – the single progenitor of what is now a huge bed.

english ivy

English Ivy

But this literary association isn’t my only fascination with ivy; I continue to be bowled over by the incredible amount of lore associated with the plant. Ivy was for instance, historically associated with, of all things, wine. It was ivy that the wine soaked followers of the Roman god, Bacchus, wore during their winter rites, decking themselves and the god with ivy garlands. (Summer garb, appropriately enough, was decorated with grape leaves.) In fact, so familiar and long running was this relationship between ivy and wine that until the 1700’s many British pubs were distinguished only by a bush of ivy to advertise their presence. A cup made of ivy wood was said to be able to detect adulterated wine (more on this strange phenomenon of “ivy wood” shortly) Drinking from these ivy cups was also said to be curative of a number of illnesses, especially whooping cough. (All that wine may have also played no small role in these supposed “cures”.) Eating the plant directly, which is today known to be dangerous, was formerly believed to be beneficial for numerous ailments. In fact, so various where the proscribed medical uses for the plant, that as the garden historian Alice Coats wryly notes, the number of potential cures suggested “experiment rather than experience… one cannot avoid the suspicion that ivy was so much used simply because it was always in hand.” Conversely, in the nineteenth century ivy became associated with death and decay, probably because of its uncanny ability to climb over and instantly age any kind of ruin. As Dickens notes in The Pickwick Papers “For the stateliest building a man can raise is the ivy’s food at last.”

The myths of ivy extend even to its origins, both etymological and botanical. Supposedly, the word ivy may derive from the old English ifig, itself a corruption of the old English iw, meaning green, a base which also gives us the word “yew”, but this etymology is rather shaky. The Latin name, hedera may derive from the Celtic, haedra, a cord; this makes some sense at least, given the Celtic Druids reverence for the plant, and its inclusion in their religious rites. (Remember that carol The Holly and the Ivy? Its one of the most ancient on record and full of thinly Christianized Druidic imagery.) Botanically, while its obvious that many of the hundreds of ivies found in cultivation today are descended in one way or another from H. helix, the English Ivy; others are the products from numerous crosses, both deliberate and accidental, between other species such as H. chrysocarpa, Italian ivy; H. colchica, Caucasian Ivy, and H. hibernica, the Irish Ivy.

variegated ivy

Variegated ivies like this one are much less hardy than their English cousins – and thus much easier to control in warmer climates.

Part of the ancients’ reverence for ivy may have to do with its bizarre habit, which to my knowledge is unique in the plant kingdom, of undergoing a fascinating biological change – hence my previous allusion to “ivy wood.” Those of you who are familiar with ivy from more northerly climes may wonder how those tiny thin vines could ever be called wood, never having seen a fully grown ivy plant – the winters there are simply to severe to allow it the ivy to fully mature. Gardeners in milder climes, however, are more than familiar with the ivy’s habit (some might be tempted to apply the word “pernicious” to this propensity) of ascending twenty, thirty, often forty feet into the tops of trees by means of little hairy rootlets that attach to anything rough. As the ivy reaches the crown, a strange thing happens – the vines undergo a change, becoming a quasi tree. In this arborescent form, the leaves, which previously were triangular and pointed, become rounded; the vines themselves thicken massively into trunks, the plant flowers (with greenish yellow blooms) and produces berries which are the delight of birds (and of course, help spread new little ivy plants everywhere.) Interestingly, when cuttings are taken from these metamorphosed versions, they don’t revert to vines; instead the cuttings will form bushes or small trees, whence comes  “ivy wood.”

Ivy’s habit of climbing trees has caused a great storm of debate amongst gardeners for centuries, which continues to wage on an off to the present day: Is, or is not, ivy harmful to the things it climbs upon? The best answer, (as is often the case in gardening) is: “it depends.” Ivy is categorically not a parasite and does not receive nourishment from the plants it climbs upon. You can prove this to yourself by severing the end of any vine: the leaves will immediately begin to wither and die, as the tip can no longer draw sustenance from the main stem. However, in climates where ivy can fully mature, the massive weight of the thickened vines, especially in older or diseased trees, plus the tendency of such dense evergreen foliage to act as a giant sail, may be enough to cause the whole mass – tree and ivy both – to come crashing to the ground in high winds. (This is not a problem in New England where winters check this kind of growth, but in the South and Northwest, ivy can quickly become invasive.) Likewise, opinions are divided on ivy’s role in causing decay when climbing on masonry; some masons I know insist that the small rootlets work their way into the mortar and cause the pointing to crumble. Others argue that the roots only adhere to the very tops surfaces, and far from causing the mortar to decay, the shade from rain and sun provided by the leaves actually helps to preserve the bricks and mortar from natural decay; it’s the process of periodically ripping down and removing ivy from where it is not wanted that serves to loosen the pointing. You’ll have to decide. Personally, having been ivy-starved in my youth, I am happy wherever ivy grows in my garden, its cheerful verdant leaves an evergreen reminder of a long and storied past.


Raising Backyard Chickens

I recently read a piece in the New York Times about the increased popularity of raising backyard chickens. Citing Americans’ desire to control both what they eat, as well as the cost of food, the article notes that raising poultry has become increasingly popular, but concludes:  “Yet, even as many people see raising chickens as a hedge against hard times — and a way to get tastier eggs and meat — they often acknowledge that it is not really a way to save money on food ‘You can buy eggs in the grocery store cheaper than you can raise them,’ said David D. Frame, a poultry specialist who works with the Utah State University Extension. ‘You’re not saving money by doing it.’ He said that feed represented 75 percent of the cost of raising a bird. Commercial poultry operations that buy huge amounts of feed at wholesale have much lower costs per bird than the backyard chicken enthusiast can typically achieve.”

Backyard chickens not only brighten the table, but the garden as well.

Backyard chickens not only brighten the table, but the garden as well.

I beg to disagree, as least as far as eggs are concerned. (Having spent most of my childhood summers on a farm, I can assure you that raising, decapitating, gutting, boiling and plucking chickens for meat is not something to be undertaken lightly by the amateur urban or suburban gardener.) Laying hens, however, are quite quite easy to keep, and in fact, I just got back from a Sunday morning excursion to get fresh eggs – at $3/dozen – from a friend of mine who raises her own chickens. Actually, this was my second trip, as I went over yesterday only to find she had already sold out, as she does most days. Her eggs however, are worth the hassle. Unbelievably golden, with a flavor that makes store-bought eggs seem like liquid cardboard. There is absolutely no comparison. Really.

So why don’t I raise my own? Well, in fact I did,  for most of the years I’ve lived here. Last spring however, something – I’m not quite sure what, most likely a fisher cat or a weasel – climbed over a six foot fence,  got into the coop the one evening I wasn’t home in time to close the inner door, and slaughtered every single hen and rooster. This was the third year running that something similar occurred, and frankly I simply decided enough was enough. When I first started to raise chickens here 17 years ago, we used to let them roam the grounds during the day without problems (other than the birds digging up the gardening beds, which can be a real issue for newly planted borders.)  But then, coyotes appeared; then foxes. So, I constrained the chickens into a very ample 50-100′ fenced enclosure with a wonderful cedar coop in the center. Then eagles attacked, requiring protection from above. Then the fishers began to arrive. These little beasties, which have a dog-like head, a beaver like body, and a long, furry tail, had been extinct in Massachusetts for over a hundred years. With the demise of farming – and the farmers who routinely trapped and killed them – they and other predators have reappeared with disastrous results for chicken fanciers. Fishers can climb right over and up most buildings or fences, meaning that unless you’re around to completely close up your coop tight each night, your flock is at risk. Not wanting to have to be home every day at sunset, nor wishing to constrain the chickens into a smaller space that was closed 24/7, I decided give up raising chickens here, and to let my friend Jane handle my egg needs: she runs a stable, and has help around most days to make sure everybody is safely enclosed each evening.

All of which is a long winded way of explaining that after all these years of raising home flocks, I have a pretty good idea of what chickens cost to keep, and I disagree with the expert quoted in the Times. While it’s true feed isn’t cheap, chickens don’t require a diet of commercial food – they eat anything, and I mean anything, leftover from your table: watermelon rinds, rotten fruit, soft bananas, vegetable trimmings, wilted lettuce, expired yogurt, cheese, and any other milk product; meat scraps and old carcasses of all kinds (including chicken, which they love…); coffee grounds, leftover desserts, crackers, or stale bread;  even egg shells (which they eat as a source of calcium.)  In fact, the thing I miss most about not having chickens at the house is not having to worry about what to do with left-over bits unsuitable for the dog or the compost pile. Previously, everything went to the chickens, and they LOVED it, recycling all this debris into a rich production of eggs.  Fed this way, and given ample room to roam, scratch, and eat the bugs, worms, grass, and other natural things they also love (providing you can beat the predators of course) chickens require almost no supplemental food except in winter. Even then, if you provide light in the coop (laying is dependent on daylight length) the constant production of one egg per hen per day is more than enough to offset your costs. And if you sell the eggs, and are located in a non-rural area where such organic delicacies go for a considerable premium, a small profit almost certainly ensues.

So if you’ve ever been tempted to raise a few birds in the backyard, I urge you to go ahead and try, just making sure you have the time, and can provide an enclosure sufficient to thwart the predators in your area. (Fortunately most folks are blessed with far fewer hazards than I am.)  The rewards are ample – in addition the culinary advantages, many of the heritage breeds of chickens are a colorful treat for the eyes – and I think you’ll find, as I did, that there’s a marvelously cyclical magic in producing such delicious bounty from unwanted scraps and waste.


Of Beans, Poles, and Other Lessons Learned

I just got in from harvesting a hefty batch of green  beans (one of the few crops that seems to have done well this season) and I have a few lessons to share.

My old, and much more practical, trellis.

My old, and much more practical, bean trellis.

1) Forget about those quaint looking traditional bean pole tepees made from bamboo stakes. I tried those this year, thinking they would make a nice change from the very prosaic metal poles and mesh that I had used previously on The Victory Garden. I grew my own 10′ supports, in fact, from a clump of arundo donax I have here in the garden. (Yes, I know, giant cane is a pest species in many climates. It isn’t a problem here though, as we are on the extreme northern end of its range where it maintains itself as a nice tidy non-spreading clump that provides all the bamboo rods I need.)

As for the old-fashioned tepees – great aesthetic, zero practicality. Not only are the canes insufficiently sturdy for the great weight of beans and foliage they carry – even now one is tottering dangerously in the direction of the prevailing wind –  but their footprint takes up an immense amount of valuable space in the garden. Much better it would have been to grow the beans in a straight line as before.

Pole Bean Northeaster'

Pole Bean Northeaster'

2) Make whatever structure you use only as high as you can reach. My current tepees are 3 or 4 feet taller than I am – again very dramatic, but terribly impractical – requiring a step ladder each time I want to harvest the beans.

3) Choose your beans carefully. I grew two varieties this year. One from Burpee, ‘Kentucky Wonder’ which was fine. Great growth, OK flavor. But wow, check out the pole variety of ‘Northeaster’ next year from Johnny’s. Flat, buttery and tender, these beans melt in your mouth. (‘Fortex’ is another one I remember to be excellent from previous years.) Beans have many distinct flavors, so it pays to look around and try different varieties. Maturation date is another important consideration. Harvest dates can often differ by more than 20 days, so if your growing season is short, chose a quick-maturing variety.


Yellow Yews, and other Gardening Myths

A closeup of Taxus baccata foliage and fruit. Interestingly, all parts of the yew are highly poisonous, except the red fruit coating around the seed.

A closeup of Taxus baccata foliage and fruit. Interestingly, all parts of the yew are highly poisonous, except the red coating around the seed.

Well, the day has dawned bright and beautiful here, and I’m shortly to decamp my office for the garden, but before I go, I wanted share with you an interesting discovery I made recently: yews prefer alkaline soil. This may not sound groundbreaking, but it’s the answer to a question that’s been puzzling me for a while. I have a low hedge of Taxus repandans, the spreading yew, along the front drive, and for several years they have been persistantly yellowing off – looking, in fact quite dreadful. I tried everything I could think of: adding iron to combat possible chlorosis; adding fertilizer; extra water; less water; acidifying the soil with sulfur. (All evergreens like acid soil, right?) Wrong. Turns out that’s another one of those common garden myths. In truth, not all evergreens like acid soil, the yew being one of them. It makes perfect sense when you think about it: European yews are native to the calciferous soil of Western Europe – think of all those ancient yews growing in chalky English churchyards – and really can’t tolerate acidic soils very well. So all my previous ministrations were actually hurting, not helping the yews. I made an about face, added some gardening lime, and the yews have begun to green right up.

Let’s just file this one away under the “Whoops” category.

By the way, for a bit more about the fascinating history of the yew, check out this link: http://www.michaelweishan.com/public_html/PRINT%20ARCHIVES/yew.htm


Welcome (Back) Newsletter Subscribers!

pots-and-trowelThis is a quick post just to alert all you folks who have previously subscribed to my newsletter that it’s now been converted into an illustrated blog. So please, take a look around, read a bit, and if you like what you see, tell your friends! I update the blog three or four times a week, and this new service will alert you by email when a new posting has been made. I think you’ll find the posts full of quirky, useful information about plants, designs and techniques for the traditional gardener – material that’s not to be found elsewhere on the web. (And if you don’t agree – heaven forbid – a ready means to unsubscribe yourself is located in the upper right hand corner of your screen, under “Email Notification.” Alternatively, you may prefer to subscribe to the RSS feed to automatically update your browser when new posts are made, rather than receiving emails. That button is located in the upper left hand corner of your screen)

Either way, enjoy, and welcome back!

Michael Weishan


Tomato Death, and Other Disasters

My daily walk through the vegetable garden, normally so pleasant, could this morning only be described as dismal. Seventy tomato plants – the pride of my growing activities – are all in various stages of decay and death, struck down by the deadly late blight of tomatoes and potatoes that has swept across New York and New England. Gone is any hope of fresh tomato salads; gone the gazpacho; gone the row upon row of smiling glass jars of canned tomatoes, awaiting a mid-winter feast. Gone, gone, gone… A few handfuls of cherries, and perhaps a salvaged beefsteak or two, will be the only result of all this effort.

Could anything more have been done?

Probably not. I started my own plants from seed, to prevent importing any disease from outside sources; I grew a large selection of varieties, both hybrids and heirlooms, some of which should have been more resistant to the blight; and most importantly, I began a regular spraying program with chlorothalonil, the fungicide recommended by the experts, the second I was notified of the problem a month ago. All to no avail. The weather, so incredibly wet, simply washed off whatever application I made, and spread the fungus faster than I could combat it. (Either that, or this year’s strain, as rumored, is resistant to fungicides, a very scary proposition…)

How's this for an appealing harvest? Late blight on the green tomato fruit.

How's this for an appealing harvest? Late blight on the green tomato fruit. This photo comes courtesy of the University of Maryland. I was too damned depressed to take my own... (:

All of which brings up an interesting point. There’s been a lot of finger pointing in the press recently, claiming that late blight began with plants shipped to New England box stores by Bonnie Plants, the nation’s largest grower of tomatoes. Local media outlets have all picked up the story; Dan Barber even did op-ed piece in the New York Times repeating the account. But I’m not entirely convinced. A little research led me to a very interesting press release from Bonnie, which clearly chronicles a time line that doesn’t conform to the story circulating through the media. In short, Bonnie points out that late blight was noticed by scientists from Cornell in a commercial field in Long Island several weeks before it was noticed at one of Bonnie’s nearby growing locations. The incredible ability of the fungus to spread quickly –  it’s transmitted by wind and rain up to forty miles, so easily that it was considered as a biological warfare agent during the Cold War  – means that it’s just as likely that Bonnie’s facility was infected from local sources, rather than the other way around. (Keep in mind too that late blight is nothing new; it pops up regularly in this part of the world, but normally late in the season – hence the name – a factor which generally limits the damage.) Either way, the press accounts circulating that the infected plants were shipped by Bonnie from the South seem to be untrue, and in any case, pointing fingers at growers and retailers isn’t the answer, as much as I would love to find an easy target for my gardening wrath.

The real culprits, then? Obviously, dear old Mother Nature bears the largest portion of the blame: one of the coldest and wettest Junes ever on record helped this disaster along very nicely, ma’am, thank you. But we humans also share responsibility. As Barber himself points out, a prejudice in gardening circles to promote old heirloom varieties, which generally have little or no disease resistance, over modern cultivars bred to withstand such onslaughts, has contributed mightily to this year’s problem. Give up my historic Brandywines? Never. But I would have killed to have had at least a few of those immune Magic Mountain experimental tomatoes that Barber mentioned growing in my garden. Even if not the tastiest, they would have had to be better than the red rocks sold at the supermarket. Our only salvation here may be from science, even if it’s in the form of that great bugaboo, genetically modified crops. Recently, for example, genes from wild potatoes immune to late blight were successfully integrated into several modern varieties, giving them complete protection from the pathogen. Similar research with wild tomatoes is underway. And thus, gentle reader, a conundrum: given a choice, which would you prefer: tomatoes sprayed with fungicide, genetically modified tomatoes, or no tomatoes at all? This last option, though seemingly histrionic, is already close to reality for many gardeners in the Pacific Northwest, where late blight has become established in the soil year round, destroying most home crops before the plants even yield a single fruit. Personally, I’m not certain which of the other two options I would choose, but as I pointed out in an earlier post, not everything old is sacred, and in a time of climatic change in which new pests and diseases are imported daily from around the globe, we gardeners had better learn to roll with the punches, or else give up the game.

But oh, I will so miss my beloved tomatoes this season…

Same time next year, my dears…