Thinking About Starting A Vegetable Garden? Read This First.

Starting a vegetable garden doesn't mean replicating the entire veggie section at the grocery store. Pick and choose to grow what you eat the most of, what's expensive to buy at the store, and what grows well in your area.

Spurred by the sluggish economy, old-fashioned frugality has become fashionable again in many aspects of our lives, and as usual, horticulture is no exception. From radio interviews to cocktails parties, I’ve been asked again and again about ways to make our gardens less costly and more productive; in particular, I’ve fielded dozens of questions about the financial viability of growing your own vegetables. Of course, we’ve all heard tales about the $60 tomato, and such stories are often unfortunately quite true: you can easily go astray dollar-wise in the vegetable garden. Overly elaborate designs, expensive, store-bought starter plants, and loads of unnecessary equipment can quickly turn your well intentioned plans for economy into economic disaster. But vegetable gardening can reap tremendous paybacks if you pay attention to a few simple rules. Here are three easy-to-follow tips that will allow you to enrich both your table and your pocket book this season.

Grow what you will harvest and use, not what you think you should be growing.

At first glance, this premise might seem self-evident, but you would be amazed at how many people get talked into growing plants because they think certain varieties are nutritious, or pretty, or might be of some possible appeal to someone, someday, somewhere, without any real plan for utilizing the produce. A perfect example is a wonderful garden I visited a few years back in Connecticut, which had some of the most beautifully tended beds of greens I had ever seen: perfectly formed little heads of butterball lettuce were mixed in amongst whorls of arugula, mache, escarole and mizuna. It was veritable salad-lovers paradise, except that no one in the family really ate salads, and the gardener in question simply grew the selection because she thought her family should have access to fresh greens – even though they were rarely, if ever, picked! This kind of wishful thinking is fine if your gardening efforts are purely ornamental, but if you’re looking to take a bite out of your food budget, you have to consider carefully what it is you eat, and even more importantly, whether or not you, or your gardening allies, will be willing to get out there and harvest the produce when its ready for the table. While finding able-bodied volunteers to pluck a few sun-warmed tomatoes from the vine for a delicious summer sauce is rarely a problem, getting disinterested family members to sit and shuck peas for an hour or two may be more of an issue, so you need to be realistic about what you will actually harvest and consume.

Grow what’s expensive.

During the five years I hosted “The Victory Garden” on PBS, we grew a lot of amazing vegetables with the help of Kip Anderson, the show’s gardener. Kip has a passion and ability to grow food like few people I’ve ever seen, but even he could sometimes go astray, at least from a cost prospective. For instance, Kip loved to grow onions from seed. Now generally, growing from seed, rather than buying expensive plants at the nursery, is most certainly the way to go. Starting your own seeds is relatively easy, extremely cost effective, and very rewarding. Onions, however, are a bit tricky. The seed is exceedingly fine, geminating slowly and unevenly over a very extended period – certainly not a beginner’s project. But Kip was determined to grow a patch of onions each season, and he nursed his seeds into small seedlings, which were then carefully planted out into the main garden, weeded, tended, and fertilized until the bulbs were ready to harvest, at which point the onions were meticulously collected and brought into cure – a necessary final step to prevent spoilage in storage. All this took an amazing quantity of effort – for what amounted to a single $5 bag of onions indistinguishable from what I could buy at the store. (In all fairness, Kip would have argued this last point, but I honestly couldn’t taste the difference.)  Leeks, on the other hand, require the same amount of work, but compared to onions are exceedingly expensive – often more than a dollar a piece – and to my mind at least, are far superior to onions in most dishes. From an economic perspective, there is simply no comparison: leeks trump onions five to one. Other good examples of cost effective vegetables are tomatoes (especially if you freeze them, or put them up in glass in lieu of buying those expensive cans of organic sauce); beets; asparagus, and raspberries. All are costly at the store, but cheap and easy to grow at home. And for a real bang for your buck, grow your own herbs: those small, individual packets of rosemary or basil at  $2 or $3 a piece add up fast, and you can easily replace that expense with loads of fresh herbs grown in pots right at your doorstep.

Start small, and grow what grows well for you.

Again, this may sound fairly obvious, but you would be surprised how many beginning gardeners launch overly grandiose garden plans, only to find that time and resources don’t allow for proper maintenance of the plot. The depressing result of such over ambition – a weed and pest infested garden – often is sufficiently discouraging to scrap the entire effort. Vegetable gardening isn’t hard, but it isn’t easy either, and is best learned through accreted experience. Ask any knowledgeable gardener, and he or she will tell you that food crops are a fussy lot, particular in their needs, and demanding of time and energy on the part of the gardener to bring to fruition. By starting small, you learn very quickly what you have time and ability to grow, and can adapt to particular successes or failures with ready ease. Remember too, gardening efforts can sometimes be killed just as easily by too much success: bushels of vegetables all ripening at once can be a huge burden to process, preserve or otherwise dispose of, especially for those leery of waste. In any case, expansion, should you truly require it, is as simple as tilling another few feet of open soil. Contraction, on the other hand, is far less easily accomplished.

So this year, as the gentle embrace of spring returns to the land, unlock your wallet from the deep freeze and surrender to that tasty temptation of growing your own produce. Get out the old shovel or tiller, turn over a small patch of soil, and ready the seed. Just keep it small, simple and practical, and soon you’ll be reaping the rewards – ­both culinary and financial ­– of the traditional gardener.

Sundials

The sundial in my upper garden. A special vertical type, we showed how to construct this dial on an episode of the Victory Garden. Notice how the dial is mounted slightly off the house; to be accurate, the dial must face directly south. The Latin motto reads: "The Sun rules me"

Each afternoon throughout the late winter, I inevitably pause on my travels back and forth between house and garage to consult the sundial in the upper garden. While the dial forms the focal point of this particular space all year long, now though it takes on a special significance. There’s something intrinsically satisfying about looking out over the cold barren landscape watching the rimey dial patiently count down the end of winter. Although the light is weak and far from warm, as long as the sun shines even faintly, the shadow still moves across the markings of the dial, as if to reassure me that all is well: the passage of the seasons continues, spring shall indeed return.

A tentative reconstuction of the horologium of Augustus. The round building in the background is the Mausoleum of Augustus, and the small building to the right, the famous Alter of Peace, now magnificently restored. The extent of the pavement and exact layout of the lines are purely conjectural, but give some idea of the scale of the undertaking.

Of course the sundial didn’t start out merely as garden decoration. Dating at least as far back as ancient Egypt and Greece, sundials were the only form of accurate timekeeping available for thousands of years, and the best of ancient engineering and science went into producing extremely accurate dials. In fact, large sundials were often set up in public places to mark the official hours of the business day or the passage of the year. (This last, technically called a solar meridian, charts not the hours as a sundial does, but the position of the sun each day at noon, marking the seasons as the shadow cast by the pointer lengthens and shortens along a proscribed line. One of the most spectacular of all solar meridians was erected in Rome by Emperor Augustus in 10 BC. To form the huge structure, called the Horologium, he transported a 21 meter, 230 ton ancient obelisk from Egypt to use as the pointer and embedding guilt numbers in the marble paving. Interestingly, while the markings of the dial were almost entirely destroyed (a few fragments were found during excavations in the 1980s), the huge obelisk proved far more durable. It was discovered toppled over and buried in the late 1700’s, and was laboriously re-erected in the Piazza di Montecitorio where it remains to this day, once again counting out the months on a recreated dial. The gilt ball that once capped the pinnacle is now in the Vatican Museum.)

On the domestic level, small sun dials  became common in the Roman Empire, and their need for unobstructed sun and easy viewing logically relegated them to outdoor garden spaces. When the first sundial actually appeared in the home garden is not known for sure, but Cicero writes to his friend Tiro as early as 42 BC that he wanted to set up a dial in the grounds of his Tuscan villa. Sundials continued to be created right through the Middle Ages and into the Enlightenment. Along the way, additional features were added to some dials. While most could tell time only by the sun, others used moonlight as well, and could accurately predict the rising and setting of various stars and planets.

Most people would be surprised to learn that the sundial’s demise as the timekeeper of choice was amazingly recent. While mechanical clocks and watches have been around for hundreds of years, until the middle of the 1800’s they were quite inaccurate, and had to be reset by consulting a sundial. Interestingly, it was the advent of the railroads that did in the dials. Sundials can keep only local time. Because of the movement of the sun around the earth, your noon arrives slightly sooner than your western neighbors, and slightly later than your eastern ones. When people traveled slowly, it wasn’t a problem that each town had its own local time, but with the advent of the rapid train travel, something needed to be done. In order to facilitate arrival and departure schedules, in 1884 a conference was held to divide the US into four time zones, each 15 degrees of latitude. All localities within that Zone would follow the same time. The 3000 year reign of the sundial was suddenly over, replaced by, of all things, the whistle of a train.

All this in no way affected the popularity of the sundial in the garden however, and in some ways, the loss of the dial’s utilitarian value only enhanced its aesthetic appeal. In fact, the zenith of sundial popularity as a garden ornament was reached just before the First World War, when the rapid industrialization of society bred nostalgia for all things old and simple. Many long-forgotten dials were resurrected during this period, thousands of new dials created, and entire books dedicated to sundials were published.

An illustration from an early 19th century book on sundials in my collection.

These days the pleasure of suntime is only a keystroke or two away, You can find sundials from numerous vendors in almost any style and shape imaginable, and for almost any budget. If you want your sundial to keep accurate time though, you need to keep a few things in mind. Sundials must be positioned very carefully. The gnomon, the part whose shadow measures the sun, must point directly north. That’s pretty easily accomplished with a compass, but there’s a bit more. Sundials are actually place-specific, in that the angle of the gnomon must be parallel to the north pole, which varies by latitude. Thus, if you move a sundial north or south of the locale for which it was constructed, it won’t tell time correctly. Some manufacturers will make custom dials specifically created to your locality, and if you are lucky enough to get one of these (or make your own, see below) –  or if a store-bought one works for you, all you need to do is to set the dial completely level. For most generic types though, you’ll have to tilt the dial slightly off the level to make up for the difference in latitude, which takes only a few minutes with the help of a guidebook. Of course, if you don’t care about telling time, you don’t have to worry about precise positioning, though given the marvelous history and lore behind the sundial, it would seem a shame not to share in this age-old ritual of sun time.

Sundials do make wonderful garden focal points, all the more so because they often bear poignant mottoes. The themes vary from morbid to cheery, though almost all have to do with the passage of time in some way. Latin has traditionally been the preferred language for dials in the West, though many others are found as well. Here are some of my favorites, all taken from dials before 1900.

NON NUMERO NISI SERANAS (or AUREAS) and variations: Let others tell of storms and showers, I count only sunny hours

TEMPUS FUGIT and variations: Time flies

BEHOLD AND BE GONE ABOUT YOUR BUSINESS

CARPE DIEM Seize the day

DEPRESSA RESURGO I set to rise

DISCE TUOS NUMERARE DIES Learn to number thy days

EHEU FUGACES LABUNTUR ANNI Alas the fleeting years slip by

TRIFLE NOT YOUR TIME IS SHORT

L’HEURE PASSE, L’AMITIE RESTE Time passes, friendship remains

FESTINAT SUPREMA The last hour approaches

FUMUS ET UMBRA SUMUS We are naught but smoke and shadow

HOC TUUM EST The present is all you may claim as yours

HODIE MIHI, CRAS TIBI Today is mine, tomorrow may be yours

THE IDLE WHO WOULD BE COUNTED WISE

THINK ALL DELIGHT IN PASTIME LIES

NOR HEED THEY WHAT THE WISE CONDEMN:

AS THEY PASS TIME, TIME PASSES THEM

I NOTE THE TIME THAT YOU WASTE

NOW IS YESTERDAY’S TOMORROW

MORA TRAHIT PERICULUM Delay is dangerous

MORS OMNIA VINCIT Death conquers all

NIL DAT QUOD NON HABET Nothing comes of nothing

A CLOCK THE TIME MAY WRONGLY TELL, I NEVER IF THE SUN SHINES WELL

NEQUE LUX SINE UMBRA There is no light without shade

NIHIL VELOCIUS ANNIS Nothing is swifter than time

C’EST L’HEURE DE BOIRE (or VIVRE) It’s time to drink (or live)

WITH MY SHADOW MOVES THE WORLD

SOL SPLENDIT OMNIBUS The sun shines for all

DU HABST DEN ETWAS GUT GETHAN Of the hours let there be none, in which by you no good is done

WE BOTH HASTEN TOWARDS SUNSET

SILENS LOQUOR Though silent, I speak

LEAD KINDLY LIGHT

Note: If you are curious to build your own dial, everything you ever need to know is contained here: Albert E Waugh Sundials: Their Theory and Construction 1973

From the Kitchen Garden: Simply Sorrel

When I lived in Paris, one of the delights of early spring was the arrival of the first sorrel at the farmer’s market – a sure sign that the most delectable of gastronomic delights, sorrel soup, was about to appear on café menus throughout the city. Strangely, sorrel – an easily seeded perennial – is rarely grown here in the US, and when it is, people seem unaware of what to do with it – other than to add the leaves to salads. That’s a real shame, as sorrel’s sour cum lemony flavor is the perfect spring tonic when paired with eggs or fish, or used in cream based soups. So, to whet your appetites, I thought I would share with you several of my favorite recipes featuring sorrel.  You should note that in all these recipes, the preference is for the first young tender sorrel leaves, which can be used almost whole. As the season progresses, sorrel leaves lengthen and toughen, so remove any veiny or stringy parts on older leaves before cooking.

Sorrel and Celery Soup
This take on the French classic is a the perfect opener to a classy spring dinner.

8 large stalks of celery, roughly chopped
1 medium onion, diced
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 ¼ cups heavy cream
1 cup sorrel leaves, tightly packed
Salt and pepper to taste

Over medium heat, soften celery and onion for about 10 minutes. Meanwhile heat the stock until simmering, and in a separate pan, careful heat the cream still steaming. Combine the sorrel, celery and onions together with a little stock, and puree. Add the remaining stock and cream, season to taste.

Sorrel Risotto
Here’s a recipe that the noted chef Deborah Madison introduced to me one spring day while hosting the Victory Garden:

2 tablespoons melted butter
1 large onion finely diced
3 to 4 cups of trimmed sorrel leaves (see note above)
1 ½ cup Arborio rice
6 cups heated vegetable or chicken stock
¼ cup crème fraiche  (heavy cream will work too)
¼ cup fresh parsley  (fresh chervil works too, if you have it.)
freshly grated Parmigiano
salt and pepper to taste

In a sauté pan, and butter and onion and soften over medium heat, about 5  minutes. Add the sorrel and ½ teaspoon salt, and cook until softened. Add the rice, stirring for one minute. Add two cups of stock, simmering until absorbed. Then turn the heat to high, and add the rest ½ cup at a time until absorbed, stirring continuously. When the rice is tender stir in the cream and parsley, season to taste, and add cheese.

Sorrel Omelet
Simple, easy, elegant, this omelet is sure to please. Add crumbled goat cheese to the filling for a real treat.

3 eggs
1 tablespoon butter
½ cup finely chopped sorrel
¼ cup heavy cream
pepper to taste.
Melted sweet butter

In a saute pan, wilt sorrel with a tablespoon of butter, about one minute. Add cream, set aside. Whisk eggs, salt and pepper. Prepare omelet, adding sorrel filling when you are ready to fold over. Slide onto plate, brush with sweet butter, serve.

Sorrel Butter for Grilled Salmon
Nothing says salmon like sorrel, and in fact, in France, you’d be hard pressed to find the two separated in spring.

1 shallot finely diced
1/3 cup dry white wine
1 ½ cup finely diced sorrel leaves, all stems removed
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, allowed to soften at room temperature
Salt and pepper to taste

In a sauté pan, add one tablespoon butter and wilt the sorrel, about 1 minute. Remove to plate. Add the shallot to the pan with the wine and a little salt over medium heat, reducing the liquid to about 2 tablespoons.  Work the cooled sorrel and shallot mixture into the butter. Grill or cook salmon as desired, spreading the sorrel butter on the fish just before serving.

A final note or two on sorrel culture: Easily grown from seed, sorrel prefers full sun and a rich composted soil. (Like rhubarb, it loves a layer of compost or manure each fall.). Established clumps can be divided in spring. In warm weather, sorrel has a tendency to bolt. Remove flower stems as they appear, and keep well watered. There are technically two species: common sorrel, rumex acetosa, and French sorrel, rumex scutatus. However, in the trade, these are often confused. (Johnny’s, for instance, lists their rumex acetosa as a “French type.” Go figure.) Purists will insist that French sorrel, which has narrower sword shaped leaves than its cousin, tastes stronger. I’ve grown both; the difference is minor. What is most important is that the leaves be harvested young. Old leaves get grainy and bitter.

The Magnificent Pussy Willow

Beyond their decorative benefits, pussy willows play another crucial role in the garden: the blooming catkins are an extremely important source of early pollen for honeybees, helping to stabilize the hives when they are at their weakest after the long winter.

One of my earliest, and fondest gardening memories is of the pussy willow in my grandfather’s back yard. There stood a clump of what Gramps always called “French” willows, which bore incredibly fat, cottony catkins – far bigger than any I had seen before. On our Saturday morning walks through the garden in late winter, this bush inevitably formed the culmination of our tour; we would pause here for moment while Grandpa inspected the catkins. Most often the result was just a disappointed shrug, but finally would come the day when Grandpa could merrily intone, “Yes, Michael, I do believe the buds are starting to swell.” If sufficiently advanced, a number of branches would be cut to take indoors to my invalid grandmother – the first sign, despite the snow on the ground and blustery winds from the north, that spring would in fact return and release us from the seemingly endless cycle of cold and ice that forms a Wisconsin winter.

To this day, I still appreciate the prognosticative nature of pussy willows, and I have always managed to include at least one specimen in any garden I’ve ever kept, even the tiny 10 x 20 city plot I maintained just after college. But recently, thanks to introductions from the Far East, things have begun to change in the willow world. A number of new varieties have appeared on the scene that make the plain green leaves and gray catkins of my youth seem pretty mundane. Species with much larger or tinted catkins, colored branches, or even variegated leaves are now available to charm the most skeptical of gardeners. Here are a couple of my favorites:

Salix chaenomeloides. The Giant Pussy Willow is a considerable improvement on the standard pussy willow (salix caprea) we’ve traditionally seen in our yards. (Caprea was Gramps’s “French” willow, in itself a better variety than salix discolor, which is native to much of the US.) The Giant Pussy Willow has dark red buds on mahogany branches that open to grayish catkins with a pinkish tinge. To 20 ft; Zone 5

Salix gracilistyla ‘Melanostachys’ The Black Pussy Willow lives up to its name: jet-black catkins appear before the bright green leaves which are perfect for forcing. A broad shrub; 15 x 15, hardy to zone 5

Salix fargesii I first spied this delightful willow on a tour of the Van Dusen botanical gardens in Vancouver, and finally persuaded the staff to allow me to take some cuttings. The sight of this shrub’s purplish-red stems covered with large reddish buds is one of the prettiest sights I’ve ever seen in a later winter garden. Unfortunately, my cuttings didn’t overwinter, nor did a plant I ordered from Forest Farm (a source for all the bushes mentioned here) so despite comments that this plant is supposedly hardy to zone 6, I’m thinking more like zone 7/8. 10 x 10′

Salix integra ‘Hakuro Nishiki’ This show-stopper is grown not so much for its delicate catkins or red stems, but for its foliage – the cream, green and pink variegations of this unusual willow will add a dash of color to the landscape on even the dreariest day. Zone 4; 6 x 8, though best kept smaller and cut back hard each spring for optimal color. (This is true of all pussywillows; only the new growth bears the much sought after catkins, so yearly cutting is required to promote budding.)

Last fall I heard about another variety: salix magnifica, with large magnolia-like bluish leaves and burgundy stems, unfortunately only hardy to zone 7, but considered by experts “to be the most remarkable of all willows.”  From you gardeners in warmer climes, I’ll expect a full report back!

Bring In Spring!

I have a complaint to make: spring is far too fickle for my liking. After what seems like endless months of fighting with shovel and blower through head-high drifts of snow, dodging deadly icicles that inevitably seem to form exclusively over my back door, and shuddering as each new arctic blast depletes what little is left of my household heating budget – suddenly spring arrives unannounced, like a dinner guest at the door an hour before the party starts –very much welcome, and very much not.

Without even a “by your leave,” all the damp dreariness of winter disappears into a burst of sunlight, warmth and flower, leaving the gardener bewildered and unprepared. In a dizzying whirl, the first tiny crocus and snowdrops appear, followed by the early tulips, daffodils, anemones, iris reticulata and a host of other small spring bulbs. Then the main show arrives – everything from flowering dogwood to Darwin tulips to apple blossoms to camassia– appearing all at once with such a hurried presentation that it’s hard to appreciate even a tenth of it. And how ephemeral this display can be! Depending on the capriciousness of windy spring weather, an entire tree full of heavenly scented peach blossoms may only last only a day or two. Two years ago, I had an entire bed of tulips mowed down by hail. And in the ultimate insult, one time, the day before my wisteria was to bloom for the first time after a ten year wait, every bud but one was wiped out in a late May frost. One bud! Ten years! What’s a gardener to do?

The answer is simple: bring in spring. You can easily transport spring inside where you have at least a modicum of control over both timing and the elements, and are able to set the pace of the display to something less than Mother Nature’s normally eye-popping speed.

Even if you missed the boat forcing your own bulbs, you can still purchase pre-cooled hyacinths for bloom this spring. The bulbs, by the way, can be saved and reused; just place in soil when done blooming, then allow the foliage to wither. Store in a cool dry place over the summer and plant outdoors in fall.

Here in my garden, this process takes several forms. One of my favorites is forcing branches, as I wrote about last week. Almost every flowering bush or tree, from ornamental quince to pears, can be forced indoors. Not only are arrangements of these cut branches extremely dramatic, the scent associated with many of these species can only really be appreciated up-close and indoors. Best of all, by cutting branches in succession, you can prolong the display over several weeks

Another good way to appreciate the beauty spring has to offer is pots of bulbs indoors. As I came into my kitchen this morning after wading out into the rain and slush to let out the chickens, there in the hallway paperwhites, crocus, and clivia were all in full bloom – a heady contrast with the gray and sleet outdoors. While many species need to be started in the fall for an early spring show (or like the clivia, are long-lived houseplants) there are still some, like pre-cooled hyacinths, paper whites, lily of the valley, and anemones, which can be started now for a late spring display. If you have totally missed the boat for starting your own this year, then simply buy potted plants from your local florist for now, and immediately put a reminder in your August calendar to order bulbs for next winter’s show. Forcing bulbs indoors isn’t difficult (I’ll be writing about that later on this year) provided you choose varieties suitable for forcing.

Finally, don’t be afraid to get out the shears and start a-snipping outside as the flowers begin to appear. Most bulbs make excellent cut flowers, and one of the best ways to appreciate these delicate beauties is in the vase. (The myth that cutting the flowers reduces next year’s display is just that: in fact, the opposite is true, as long you are sure to leave the foliage intact to wither away on the bulb) One idea: a special garden just for cutting. Several years ago I planted a small out-of-the-way area with early, middle and late tulips; narcissi, muscari, and hyacinths. Now, if for some reason I don’t have potted bulbs on hand (like last year, when neglecting my own advice, I forgot to order in the fall) I can simply go out and cut for the house without worrying about diminishing the display in the border.

So with a little forethought and preparation, even if snow flies in May, or slurries of slush still lie silently on your front walk, just waiting for the unwary, you too can laugh at weather. All you need to do is bring in spring.

Don’t You Just Love Free Shipping on Seeds?

The new 'Defiant' tomato with late blight resistance.

One thing that always really galls me is to get to the end of an Internet seed order, and then click the button only to find the total has increased by 20% because of shipping. Especially seeds. For goodness sake, they are feather-light! What can it really cost to ship seeds? But here’s a trick for one my favorite suppliers, Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Though it’s not advertised anywhere on their site, I did a bit of Internet snooping: if you type in 11-1005 in the coupon box when you go to check out, shipping suddenly becomes free. That saved me $14 bucks, which will buy a few more varieties instead of supporting UPS! Of especially interest to me this year is their new (and exclusive) ‘Defiant’ tomato, which has been bred for “great taste” and resistance to both early and late blights. Though late blight didn’t make the news last year like the season previous, it was very much present in the garden during late August and September, and again ended the tomato season long before first frost. I noticed that where tomatoes had not been planted the year previous, as in the brand new Harvard College Community Garden in Cambridge, Massachusetts, there was no blight, but my garden, as well as the nearby community garden, all suffered, which leads me to believe that the blight pathogen is far more persistent in the Northeast than first believed. Perhaps this new variety will help, we’ll see. But at any rate, enjoy this hidden gem of free shipping while it lasts.

Flowers for Free – Forcing Branches

One of my favorite shrubs for forcing, hamamelis 'Arnold Promise" flowering in my garden last spring. Cut and brought inside, these highly fragrant pom-pom like blossoms will persist for over a week.

The other day I passed by a florist shop, and sighed. The air was so redolent with the scents of spring with flowers and foliage in carefree profusion, that I was tempted to make a purchase. I paused for moment, considering a bunch of tulips, and then stopped; the small bouquet I was holding cost almost $20. No, I thought, putting the flowers back in their watery bath, there’s a better, cheaper way just waiting in your own back yard. The only thing that would be required was the will to push through the drifted snow, and a pair of clippers. So this morning, suitably clad, I made my way out to the witchhazel and did some strategic pruning. In a few days, the house will be filled with flowers and fragrance – for free. There’s nothing to it really, provided you’ve planned ahead and included shrubs for forcing in your landscape design.

Even the least experienced gardener has probably seen the most commonly forced shrub, the forsythia, brought indoors at one time or another. When I was a child, we always used cut branches of the forsythia to make our Easter Egg tree, and one of my fondest annual memories was going out into the garden with my mother to choose just the right branches from which to hang the decorated eggs. Forsythias in fact are so easy to force that they are almost foolproof — simply cut a few branches anytime after January, bring them inside and stick them in water. They are generally so eager to perform, that given enough time, not only will they flower, but they will sprout leaves and root as well. There are however, a whole host of other wonderful forcing candidates, (see the table below) that while perhaps not quite as simple to bring to bloom, more than make up for any added difficulties with a bonus of marvelously fragrant or remarkable flowers.

The trick to forcing branches of these lesser known varieties is two-fold. First, the branches must have had a sufficiently long period of dormancy before you bring them indoors. Generally speaking, anytime after the end of January will yield good results — the closer you are to the shrubs bloom time, obviously the shorter and easier the process will be. (This is why my foray this morning was to the witchhazel; given a few warm days, it will begin blooming any time now outdoors.) Secondly, you need to make some attempt at duplicating the natural weather conditions of bloom time during the forcing process. Most critical is sufficient moisture and humidity– the blossoms must not be allowed to dry out at anytime during the process or you will succeed in producing nothing more than a few desiccated wisps.

To this end, once you have chosen some suitable branches (suitable here being defined as at least a 12”  branch, having a large number of recognizably fat flower buds, and not belonging to part of the shrub where removal would harm the plant’s overall appearance), cut the branches flush to the main stem with a very sharp pair of shears, and immediately bring them inside and place them in a bucket of warm water. Preferably, you would actually completely submerge the branches in a large tub for 24 hours, but given the paucity of basement laundry or floral sinks these days, 3 or 4 heavy mistings to drench the branches over a period of 24 hours will do.) Then place the bucket somewhere where the temperature will remain between 55-65, in bright, but indirect light. Higher temperatures and direct sunlight will only succeed in desiccating the branches and reducing bloom quality. The idea here is that you are trying to replicate the cool moist conditions of springtime. Depending on the species you choose, and how far advanced the season is, the process can take anywhere from 1 to 4 weeks. You will need to keep an eye on the water too, and change it if it becomes foul — a re-cutting of the base to keep the cut fresh can’t hurt either. Another florists trick: don’t wait till the buds have opened to arrange the flowers. Do it just before the buds burst, thereby preventing the delicate blossoms from being damaged in the process. The forced flowers will last just as long as they do outdoors — generally 2-7 days, depending on the variety. Moving the arrangement to a cool spot at night will lengthen the flowering period.

You may think that this sounds like rather a lot of fuss for a few simple flowering branches – that is until you try it. The first time  you walk into your house on a cold, wet winters day to find your apple or almond blossoms burst merrily forth, filling your entire home with heady scent and dreams of warmer days to come, you’ll  be hooked. From then on your only problem will be finding space to include all these beauties in your garden – which on the scale of gardening dilemmas, is a deliciously delightful problem to ponder.

Botanical Name Common Name Flower Color Best Time to Cut (Based on Zone 5) Weeks Needed to Force Comments
Abeliophyllum distichum Korean Abelialeaf white mid-January 1-3 easy; similar to forsythia
Aesculus hippocastanum Horsechesnut White to pink to shades of purple & red Mid-March 2-3
Amelanchier spp. Serviceberry white February 1-4 fragrant blossoms; easy
Cercis canadensis Redbud Rosy to magenta pink Early March 2-3 worthwhile, but somewhat difficult to force
Chaenomeles spp. Japanese Quince Red-orange Mid-February 4 brilliant blossoms
Cornus mas Cornelian Cherry Yellow January 2
Cornus spp. Dogwoods White & pink Mid-March 2-3
Crataegus spp. Hawthorns White through red Mid-March 4-5
Cytisus scoparius Scotch Broom Lavender Late January 4-6
Deutzia spp. Deutzias White Early March 3-4
Forsythia spp. Forsythias Yellow Mid-January 1-3 extremely easy
Fothergilla spp. Fothergillas White March 2-3 fragrant
Hamamelis spp. Witch Hazel Yellow January 1 one of the first blossom; fragrant
Kalmia latifolia Mountain Laurel White to deep pink Mid-March 5
Kolkwitzia

amabilis

Beautybush Pink Mid-March 6
Lonicera spp. Honeysuckles White to pink March 2-3 occasionally fragrant
Magnolia spp. Magnolias Creamy white to deep red Early March 3-5 larger budded varieties more difficult to force
Malus spp. Apples/Crabapples White, pink, to dark red February to Mid March 2-4 double flowering types force more slowly but last longer; very fragrant
Philadelphus spp. Mockoranges White Mid-March 4-5 extremely fragrant, though short lived
Prunus spp. Cherries, Flowering Almonds, Plums White & pink Early February 2-4 most wonderfully fragrant
Pyrus spp. Pears White Late January 4-5 excellent for forcing; fragrant
Rhododendron spp. Rhododendrons or Azaleas White through pink, lavender, lilac to red Late February 4-6 more difficult
Ribes spp. Currants, gooeberries Yellow Late March 1-2 some are fragrant
Salix discolor Pussy Willow N/A February 1-2 can be dried to preserve once buds open; branches will root if left in water
Spiraea spp. Spireas Generally white March 4 double flowering types force more slowly but last longer
Syringa spp. Lilacs White through purple Early March 4-5 very fragrant but possibly the hardest of all shrubs to force

Going to the Birds

Gorgeous in spring, crabapples are one of many trees and bushes that bear winter fruit perfect for birds.

As I write this morning, an entire host of robins – and I do mean a host, as I’ve counted over 20 – has settled into the Japanese crabapples outside my study window. (Didn’t robins used to fly south? No matter.) Occasionally a cardinal joins them, or a blue jay, all intent on stripping the trees of the red crabapples that still persist on the branches. It will take the birds at least two weeks, even at these numbers, to denude the trees, but until then they’ll spend many sated, contented hours. And the birds aren’t the only happy ones. What could be more pleasant than helping out our feathered friends at no cost? The secret of course is this: rather than planting your landscape entirely with sterile species or exotic plants – which often bear fruit and berries unpalatable to American birds – include some fruiting species that supply shelter and food to birds throughout summer, fall, and winter, naturally, without any effort from you. Not only will you be giving your feathered friends a break, but you’ll also be making an attractive addition to your garden. Here are six excellent candidates for the home landscape, hardy throughout most of the country:

Amelanchier (Amelanchier spp z 4) Found from Maine to the Carolinas, the amelanchier, is also known by the romantic name of shadblow because of its habit of blooming just about the time shad run in New England rivers. One of my favorite small trees, (growing to about 25 feet) the various amelanchier species produce masses of white flowers in the early spring, followed by red berries in July that birds quickly consume. (The berries are also prized by humans; they were an important food source to the Native Americans and early European settlers, who used them in jellies, jams, and pies. If you want to harvest the fruit for yourself however, you’ll have to secrete an extra tree or two under orchard netting – the berries last only a matter of hours once the birds discover they are ripe.) Amelanchiers have the added advantage of brilliant red/orange fall color and interesting gray bark in the winter, making them an attractive year round addition to the landscape. Several varieties are commonly available: A. canadenis and A. laevis, (both often confused in the trade) are equally commendable, as are a number of named cultivars.

Ilex verticillata (z 4) Winterberry is a deciduous holly that produces those masses of red-berried branches you often see in expensive florist shops just before Christmas. Birds adore these berries latter in the winter, when little other food is available. While rather plain and unassuming for most of the summer, Winterberries come into their own after the first few frosts: a massed planting of winterberries on the edge of a woodland or in front of an evergreen planting will literally light up the late fall landscape. Winterberries grow to 9 feet, and will tolerate moist, acidic soils, as well as a considerable amount of shade. Many cultivars are available, though not all (especially the yellow berried forms) seem equally palatable to our feathered friends, especially wild turkeys, who arrive to my garden in droves in late autumn and routinely strip the branches bare of fruit.

Aronia arbutifolia (z 4) A member of the rose family, the Red Chokeberry grows to 9 feet and produces white flowers in the spring, followed in the fall by outstanding red berries that persist well into the winter. The autumn foliage color is also spectacular: a rich, deep crimson. Tolerant of most conditions and soils, the aronia’s principle drawback is that the bush can get somewhat leggy when grown singly; use either massed plantings, or prune singles heavily to maintain a dense shape. The cultivar ‘Brillantissima’ seems a substantial improvement on the species, and is equally favored by birds.

Cornus racemosa (z 3) The Gray Dogwood is a multi-stemmed small tree or shrub, which grows to about 15 feet. Numerous diminutive white flower clusters appear in early summer, followed later in the season by small white berries on red fruit stalks that are consumed by dozens of bird species. The fall color, while not spectacular, is a pleasant, reddish purple. Gray Dogwood’s growth habit is very dense, and often makes a good barrier plant, especially when periodically cut back to the ground in the early spring. Extremely easy to grow, the Gray Dogwood prefers full sun and moist, well-drained soil, but is extremely tolerant of less than perfect conditions. It’s excellent for specimen use in the shrubbery border or massed plantings along verges or woodlands.

Sambucus canadensis (z 3) The American Elder has been a popular plant from time immemorial; its purple fruits are beloved not only by birds, but also by humans, for use in jellies, pies, juice and the famous elderberry wine. Rather an ungainly plant, the American Elder grows to about 10 feet, with multiple stems. Like the gray dogwood and many similar species, it tends to get gangly if not periodically cut back to the ground. The American Elder prefers full sun, and a moist spot. The profuse white flowers appear in June-July and are quite ornamental; the purple black fruits arrive from August-September. Several interesting cultivars are available, including a number with red berries, and one, ‘Aurea,’ with golden leaves. (An important note: only the Sambucus berries may be eaten: the foliage and branches contain a toxin poisonous to humans and cattle if consumed.)

Crabapples (Malus spp, z 4) The crabapple family is so extensive that it’s almost impossible to make general recommendations. Trees are chosen primarily for their flower color (white to red) size (dwarf to full) berry color (gold to purple) and disease resistance (poor to excellent, a very important consideration in a species highly susceptible to severe diseases like fire blight). However, within these parameters, if you’re interested in helping our avian friends, then inquire at your local nursery about berry persistence, a critical factor in winter feeding. Many type of crabs lose their berries early in the season; others, like my Japanese crabs, don’t, making them very attractive for birds at this time of year. One exception to this rule is probably the best crab of all, malus ‘Donald Wyman’.  Spectacular in every other way, the birds shun the berries which persist almost till spring.

Why?

Well you’ll have to ask our feathered friends about that.

Sad Sack

For those of you wondering about my constant admonition not to plant rhododendrons as foreground plantings in the Northeast, here’s why:

This is one of my favorite rhododendrons ‘Sensation’ this morning in 15º weather… (The picture is a bit blurry not because it’s out of focus, but because of heavy snow swirling round when I shot it.) Believe it or not, the plant is not dead. The leaves will completely re-inflate once the weather warms.

If the weather warms. This winter I am beginning to wonder. We have 4′ of snow on the ground, on the FLAT, with another foot expected tomorrow. Sigh.

But, to return to the subject at hand –  rhododendrons in the Northeast are best use as background plantings, either tucked in the distance or fronted by other more resilient plantings, where their blossoms can be appreciated in the spring, and the foliage can be ignored in the winter.

For those of you readers luxuriating in the temperate Pacific Northwest admiring the verdant green rhodie foliage out your windows and chuckling, I don’t even want to hear about it.

Antique Gardening Books

OK. I have to admit to an addiction: It’s almost impossible for me to pass up old gardening books, especially Victorian ones.

I’m not quite sure exactly how I fell into this trap. Somewhere along the line I came across my first antique guide, and I was immediately seduced: wonderful old pen and ink drawings, interesting history, fantastic writing.  All in all, harmless fun, I thought, and besides, for someone like me who works in the media, what a great starting point for new articles. Plus, as all the images had long since passed out of copyright protection, this would be an  illustration gold mine! Surely, a sound purchase!

Little did I know.

For a while I’d find the odd book here, another there, generally for cheap money, but soon, my greed grew, and I started perusing the catalogs of specialty vendors. I just had to have the $225 first edition of Frank Scotts Suburban Home Grounds, didn’t I, and certainly $400 was not too much for two 1780 French treatises on pears! You can see where this was headed…

And of course, Martha Stewart didn’t help. Until the late 90s, many old gardening books gathered dust for lack of a buyer. And then the big M got involved, cooing and kaaing on her show about just how wonderfully quaint, decorative, and amusing these volumes are. And of course, they are, but she didn’t have to say so on national TV! Prices shot through the roof almost overnight, and have only recently just begun to drop back to reasonable levels.

In my defense, I did use the books I purchased, heavily. Most of the illustrations in my first book, The New Traditional Garden, came from these volumes. As did many of the drawings in my second, From a Victorian Garden, as well as the print editions of Traditional Gardening. But there rapidly came a time when even the ample shelves of my gardening library – which holds 1200 odd volumes – began to groan under the weight – literally. One day, I noticed some cracking in the first floor library ceiling (yes, another library, this one for general volumes) and called over a structural engineer friend of mine. Sure enough the weight of all those gardening books on the second floor  was weakening the ceiling above the first floor library. Substantial repairs ensued, finally putting  an end to my active collecting. Out of space, and now, thanks to the construction, out of money, I’ve finally called  a halt.

Mostly.

The other day I came across a wonderful volume by Liberty Hyde Bailey, one of the most famous garden writers  and horticultural thinkers of the early 20th century. (Click the link above to find out more about this remarkable man.) I’ve always admired his fluid, witty prose, and I as I flipped through the pages, my eyes settled on this passage from Garden-Making:

The lesson is that there is no soil – where a house  would be built, so poor that something cannot be grown. If budocks will grow, something else will grow; or if nothing else will grow, then I prefer burdocks to sand and rubbish. The burdock is one of the most striking and decorative of plants, and a good piece of it against a building or on a rough bank is just as useful as some plant which costs money and is difficult to grow. I had a good clump of it under my study window, and it was a great comfort, but the man would persist in cutting it down when he mowed the lawn. When I remonstrated, he declared that it was nothing but burdock; but I insisted that so far from being burdock, it was really Lappa major, since which time the plant has enjoyed his utmost respect.



The dump heap of plaster and lathe that I mentioned before has a surface area of nearly 150 square feet, and I find that it has grown over 200 good plants of one kind or another this year. This is more than my gardener accomplished on an equal area, with manure and water and a man to help. The difference was that the plants on the dump wanted to grow, and the imported plants in the garden did not want to grow. It was the difference between a willing horse and a balky one. If a person wants to show his skill, he may choose a balky plant. But if he wants fun and comfort in gardening, he had better choose the willing one….

Now tell me, how could I possibly resist such reasonably thinking, such charming prose?

Besides, just one more book couldn’t hurt… Could it?