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Planting The Seeds Of Spring

The following is a regular column that addresses basic issues facing the ever-inquisitive back- and front-yard toiler, proffered by someone who knows best; one of the master gardeners from the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Brian Cruey.

We’re so close to spring, can you feel it? No? Me neither. But it’s coming, rest assured. Even if it’s only just a day on the calendar for us folks here in the RI region, March 20 is the official first day of spring and it will be here before you know it. It’s time to warm up those green thumbs and get your head back into the growing game.

Around this time of year, the best thing that you can do is plan your gardens, take some classes or, if you really want to get your hands dirty, start some seeds indoors.

I’ll be totally honest with you — I’m not much of a seed starter. I’ve tried in the past, but it hasn’t always gone too well for me. My problem? I try to do too much. Starting seeds, especially indoors during the winter months, takes patience and a decent grasp of the science of germination and starting seeds. Temperatures need to be right, the timing needs to be calculated, and you need not only space, but space with sun — valuable and scarce real estate at my house. Unless you have a setup with grow lights and stand you are more than likely going to run into certain limitations.

For example, here’s what my typical failure looks like: I get really excited about starting seeds and go overboard. I buy six or seven seed starter trays and lots of seeds, and then I plant them all at once. In a couple of weeks I have beautiful sprouts that are ready to start their journey… but I have nowhere to put them. I start sticking them in windows that aren’t really adequate, rigging up grow lights that I forget to turn on or off and soon I have a lot of unhappy seedlings that really don’t stand much of a chance. I’m terrible with houseplants as it is, so this is a real test for me to begin with. I am a firm believer that part of being a successful gardener is realizing your limitations and your strengths (and that goes for both indoor and outdoor gardening). 

So here is my advice: Start small with just one tray of seeds. This can be anything from a particular annual that you like, garden vegetables or herbs — it’s up to you. Pay careful attention to germination times. If something germinates quickly, you don’t want to seed it in early February. Remember, you want to time your seedlings so that they can be put outside after the last threat of frost. The earliest I ever allow for that here is mid May, and even that is risky. You don’t want your seedlings spending too much time in their seed trays. Plants need room to grow and if you can’t put your plants outside, you’ll need to transplant them into a larger container in the interim.

Plugs ready for transplant.

Your best bet to get started is to get a seed starting kit from your local nursery or hardware store. These are simple units with a tray and a domed plastic cover, though some also include a potting mix as well. Different seeds have different sowing requirements, so make sure to read the seed packages closely and follow instructions.  When you have tiny seeds (like lettuces for example), it can be hard to get just one in an individual unit. That’s okay. When the seeds sprout, carefully remove one of the seedlings to give the others room to grow. Also, be careful not to overwater your seedlings. You want the soil to be damp to the touch but not soaking wet.

Lastly, put your seed tray somewhere you’re forced to see it everyday. This will help you to keep an eye on things even if you’re busy and, like most things, the earlier you catch a problem the easier it is to fix.

Note: We will be going into more depth on this topic in an upcoming workshop at the Berkshire Botanical Garden. Maureen Sullivan and Mitch Deldmesser, owners of Left Field Farm in Middlefield, MA, will focus on indoor sowing and growing practices. Click here for more information.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 02/23/15 at 07:53 PM • Permalink

Moles Are Good, Voles Are Bad, And How To Tell The Difference

The following is a regular column that addresses basic issues facing the ever-inquisitive back- and front-yard toiler, proffered by someone who knows best; one of the master gardeners from the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Brian Cruey.

Of course, snow has been the big topic of conversation this week. And, even though dealing with two feet of snow causes some real headaches, it has its bonuses. For one, that season pass I bought for Otis Ski Ridge will finally start getting some use. And let’s be real — there’s nothing like getting a legit “snow day” as an adult. Waking up and seeing that the office is closed immediately makes us all 12 years old again, and that is a magical thing.

But today I’m thinking of what’s below the snow. Though our snow totals this year have been on the light side, we’ve still had some accumulation and as that snow has melted on warmer days, the receding inches have revealed some curious tracks that look like tunnels. Maybe you’ve seen something similar in your yard?

If you have, congratulations! You more than likely have voles. 

Voles are rodents that resemble mice, though they are stouter, and have longer hair and shorter tails. Many confuse the lawn damage and “runways” they create near the lawn’s surface (or in the snow) for moles, but there are some very big differences between the two and it’s important to be able to tell them apart. 

In terms of damage done to your garden, voles are the real culprit. Though moles can cause some havoc on your lawn with their tunneling and mounding, they’re insectivores, feeding mostly on earthworms and bugs. 

Photo by David Perez.

Voles, on the other hand, eat plant roots, bulbs and the bark of young trees (especially fruit trees). Voles are also incredibly prolific breeders and have no problem inviting friends over for dinner, where moles are mostly solitary. If you get rid of your mole, there probably isn’t another one too close by. Voles are a different story.

Dealing with voles can be difficult, especially if you’re opposed to poisons and kill traps (good ol’ fashioned snap traps work great.) One way to handle them is to keep snow cleared from around the base of your trees and garden beds. Without snow to tunnel through, they’ll often steer clear of areas that are too exposed to the elements and predators.  (Speaking of predators, cats make great pest control and love to hunt. If your vole party is getting out of control, shoo the cat outside for a little bit and make it earn its keep.)

Because voles don’t dig too deeply into the ground, another method of control is to put a lip of gravel around your beds a few inches deep. Gravel is hard for voles to tunnel through, so they’ll usually avoid it. Chicken wire on top of the soil also works well to keep voles from tunneling down and getting all of your spring bulbs.

For your trees, try wrapping them in hardware cloth starting at the base and going at least two feet up the trunk of the tree. This will provide some protection for the bark at the base, where tunneling occurs.

Like mice and other rodents, voles can get out of hand if not managed properly. If you see that you’re starting to have a problem, it’s better to deal with it before the pest population becomes so overwhelming that it’s impossible to control.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 01/26/15 at 04:03 PM • Permalink

Into The Woods You Go, To Emerge With A Sustainable Wreath

The following is a regular column that addresses basic issues facing the ever-inquisitive back- and front-yard toiler, proffered by someone who knows best; one of the master gardeners from the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Brian Cruey.

Here at the Berkshire Botanical Garden, the first signs of the holiday season come with the volunteers and designers who descend on the Garden to make hundreds of wreaths, centerpieces, boughs and swags for our annual Gallery of Wreaths. Each year during Stockbridge’s Christmas on Main Street (this year December 6 and 7) we decorate the exhibit hall to the nines and turn it into a showplace of local craft and food vendors, the highlight of which is our wreath expo, designed to raise money for the Garden.

It’s festive for sure, but seeing all of the work and thought that goes into making these unique and inspired evergreen creations is also inspiring. The real beauty of these wreaths is that the majority of them are made completely with seed pods, bark, branches, fruit and other items that are all found locally in the garden and forest. We spend months collecting items that we can use in our wreath workshops and it’s remarkable what these talented designers can do using simple, everyday organic material. 

As you finish your garden cleanup or take a walk in the woods, look around. Why not try your hand at your own homemade decorations this year? Buy a wreath frame or, if you don’t feel like starting totally from scratch, buy a plain wreath and add the bells and whistles yourself. Some of the materials that our master wreath makers find the most useful in their work are things like dried wild mushrooms, feathers, acorns and nuts, fern fronds, dried protea, honey locust seed pods, small branches, sumac seed pods, and of course, pine cones of every shape and size.

As you collect, make sure that you are doing so safely and responsibly. Like everything we do here at the Garden, we try to do it in a way that’s as ethically and environmentally sound as possible.

Here are some tips to ensure that your efforts collecting in the woods are safe AND sustainable:
• Collect from your own property, from family or friends or ask permission of landowners
• Be selective — NEVER collect rare and endangered plant species and only collect things that are abundant. If you question whether or not you should be taking it, then you probably shouldn’t! 
• Collect from the ground. For example, you never want to take bark off of live trees. The best foraging comes from downed branches and materials that plants discard naturally or things you cut back in your own garden at the end of the growing season. If you do take things like evergreen branches off trees, make sure to use the proper tools and make the right kind of cuts to encourage new growth.
• BE SAFE! Know when hunting season is and dress in hunter’s orange. Stay away from roadsides and highly trafficked areas and steer clear of poisonous plants. 
• Avoid invasive materials such as bittersweet vines and berries or burning bush fruit. They may look pretty, but don’t forget — they are seeds and you don’t want to introduce these species into your garden or anyone else’s.

As always, respecting the environment and preserving the natural beauty of the region is a shared responsibility we all need to be conscious of.

Want to get some ideas and inspiration for your own holiday creations? Stop by our Holiday Marketplace on December 6 and 7 and visit our Gallery of Wreaths at the Berkshire Botanical Garden. 

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Posted by Lisa Green on 11/19/14 at 12:06 PM • Permalink

Cutting Back Perennials Now Means Saving Time In Spring

The following is a regular column that addresses basic issues facing the ever-inquisitive back- and front-yard toiler, proffered by someone who knows best; one of the master gardeners from the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Brian Cruey.

Now that we have had our first legit freeze, it is time to start cutting back perennials.  Yes, you can wait until spring to do this.  As a matter of fact, some people even suggest waiting because the amount of plant material you will have in the spring is less (which is true) and you give the plant as much time as possible to photosynthesize. 

This just doesn’t work for me. For starters, plant material left through the winter is often viscid and tough (and gross) to cut through. If you have large flowerbeds, it’s also a precarious time to be in your flowerbeds. You don’t want to damage your plants just as they are starting to come up through the spring soil. In the spring I am ready to start anew, my list of things to do is long and the last thing I want to be bothered with is cleaning up last year’s garden.

That doesn’t mean I attack my garden with a weed whacker and start clear-cutting my beds. There are some plants that I intentionally leave through the winter because they provide some benefit. For example, if you have plants that you want to self seed, I would suggest leaving those and letting nature do its thing. On the flip side of that, make sure to cut back those perennials that are over seeding in your garden. Each year I fight back self seeded Japanese Anemone and Black Eyed Susans and that’s even with a good fall cutback.  I’m always also sure to cut back my peonies as I always have a few plant that end up with blackened, diseased foliage by the end of the season and I don’t want that lingering in the garden and spreading to other plants next year.

There are other reasons to leave your plants up besides propagation. Many plants have a structure or quality to them that make them a focus of interest in the winter garden. The flower heads of sedum, globe thistle, phlomis, and most ornamental grasses, for instance, look beautiful capped in snow and blowing with the wind.  Despite being visually pleasing, many seed heads like sunflower, Echinacea and phlox make excellent food for small birds capable of perching on and eating directly from the plant. 

If you are cutting your plants back in the fall, do be careful to wait until you have had a couple of good hard frosts that leave your plants with that obvious “I’m done” look.  Cutting back plants too early could actually stimulate new growth on the plant, using up stored resources that it would otherwise use in the spring.

For the most part, when and how you close your perennial beds are a matter of preference. It’s up to you to decide what you want to look at and what you want waiting for you in the spring when the snow melts.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 10/21/14 at 04:04 PM • Permalink

Store And Save: Overwintering Plants Is The Caring Thing To Do

The following is a regular column that addresses basic issues facing the ever-inquisitive back- and front-yard toiler, proffered by someone who knows best; one of the master gardeners from the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Brian Cruey.

What a week to be in the Rural Intelligence region. The colors, the weather, the sunsets —  it’s just too much to put into words, so I’m not going to try. If you’re here, you know. 

But don’t be fooled — those cold temperatures are going to be here before you know it and you don’t want to be caught off guard. For the past couple of weeks here at the Berkshire Botanical Garden, we’ve been bringing in all of the non-hardy and tropical plants that we overwinter in the greenhouses. I realize that most of us aren’t lucky enough to have a greenhouse, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t overwinter some of your non-hardy plants in your home with success and ease. 

Dahlias [in before-and-after photos above] are a perfect example. Long loved for their large, colorful blooms, dahlias are available in an abundance of varieties and colors. Unfortunately, dahlias can’t survive through our rough New England winters. However, they’re so easy to store that they’re worth the effort. Here’s what you do:

After the first frost or when the plant starts to blacken, cut it back to about four inches above the soil line. Then, with a fork or spade, gently lift the roots out of the ground. These are tuberous plants and you will most likely see the eyes of new growth on the roots. Carefully remove the soil from around the roots and then, if you want to divide them, do so now, making sure that each root has at least one eye on it. Leave the dahlia root out in a cool, dry place to dry (up to two weeks). Put the dry roots in a bucket or box and cover them with sawdust, peat moss or sand, keeping them dry until you’re ready to plant in the spring after the ground has thawed and the threat of frost has passed.

Canna lilies have a similar storage method, with one exception: after they’ve dried they should be hung in mesh bags or placed on racks so that the air moves freely around them. Keep them in a place where the temperature will not rise above 50 degrees, but won’t dip below freezing. 

Other plants, like geraniums, can be dug up and brought in whole, but they can get messy and take up a lot of room. By the end of the summer, you’re usually dealing with a larger plant that will eventually lose some of its flowers and leaves after you bring it inside. Instead of trying to overwinter the entire plant, try taking a clipping before the first frost and rooting it inside. Find a good, healthy slip of the plant (about 4 to 5 inches in length) and remove the lower leaves above the cut. Dip the cutting in a rooting agent and place it in a pot filled with good, fertile soil. To help it along, you can cover it with a plastic bag until the roots have formed, usually in about four weeks. Place your rooted plant in a south-facing window and continue to water it throughout the winter. Once the weather warms and the frosts have passed, you should have a healthy plant that’s ready to be planted outside.

There are lots of annuals in the summer garden that can make it through the winter indoors. These are just a few of the easier ones (because I really like easy). If you have other varieties that you would like to overwinter, do a little research and see what’s recommended; different plants have very different needs. The worst that could happen is that it will die and, well, that would’ve happened anyway.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 10/01/14 at 09:35 AM • Permalink

Leave Them Be: The Why And How Of Leaf Mulching

The following is a regular column that addresses basic issues facing the ever-inquisitive back- and front-yard toiler, proffered by someone who knows best; one of the master gardeners from the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Brian Cruey. This week he gives us a new perspective on all those leaves that need raking.

What do you do with fall leaves once they stop painting the hillsides and start accumulating on your lawn? After you rake them, do you put them out for the trash collector? Burn them?  Throw them in the woods? Let me tell you something; If you are throwing away your leaves, you are basically burning money.  Not only can you use leaves in your compost pile, but those piles of fall leaves can work for you in other ways, too.

Mulching your flowerbeds in the spring is one of the best things you can do for your garden and for yourself.  Not only does it have multiple benefits for the health of your plants, but it also saves your back by reducing the amount of time you spend hunched over pulling weeds. 

But mulch can be tricky.  You want to get it down before weeds start to germinate in the spring. It can also be really expensive; if you have a decent-sized garden, you’ll often need more than what you can buy in bags at the nursery, and having it delivered by the cubic yard will usually involve additional fees.  Spring is a time when I usually have a lot of projects going on and both time and money can be in short supply, leaving my best intentions for a well-mulched garden to fall to the wayside. 

So last year I cut out the middleman and made my own mulch using leaves and pine needles that I raked up from my yard.  It’s one of those things that is so simple, so obvious and so FREE that you wonder, why haven’t I done this before?? Try it and trust me, you’ll agree.  Here’s what you do:

1. Rake your leaves. (Include pine needles too if you have them.)

2. Chop them up.  Flat, uncut leaves will create layers that will retain moisture and prevent air from passing through, which is not what we want.  There are a couple of different ways you can prevent this.  I rake my leaves into a manageable area just thick enough for getting my mower over without causing it to stall out.  Use your push mower or a riding mower – it doesn’t really matter.  If you have a chipper or an electric leaf cutter, that will work just fine, too.  Here’s another fun trick:  Take a big plastic trash can and fill it about half way up with leaves, then use your weed whacker like an immersion blender chopping the leaves directly into the trash can.  This process takes a little longer but works well if you don’t have a lot of material to deal with.

3. Add other debris and turn. This is optional. If you want to add wood chips or grass clippings, now is the time to do it.  Mix it up well to avoid clumping.

4. Store and cover. If you have a mulch bin or other container, put your chopped debris in it and cover it with a tarp.  I just mounded mine on the ground and covered it, which works just as well.  The goal is to keep it dry and protected from the elements to keep it from decomposing too quickly.  Here’s a tip: Instead of making one large pile, I made four smaller ones, each located by where I would eventually be applying the mulch in the spring so I wouldn’t have to wheelbarrow it all over the yard.

5. Spread the mulch. Once spring rolls around, apply a layer of leaf mulch that is two to four inches deep around the base of your plants and throughout your beds, being careful not to cover up your perennials.

Now sit back and use all of that time you would have spent pulling weeds to count all of the money you saved on mulch.


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Posted by Lisa Green on 09/16/14 at 03:45 PM • Permalink

Garden: Fall Is Not Just A Tree Thing

The following is a regular column that addresses basic issues facing the ever-inquisitive back- and front-yard toiler, proffered by someone who knows best; one of the fertile master gardeners from the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Brian Cruey.


You don’t need me to tell you that summer is taking a bow and making room on the stage for fall. Not only is Labor Day in our rear view mirror, but a drive down any of our scenic roadways reveals swamp maples that are already blood red, and other trees that are starting to blush. 

Living in the northeast, it’s hard not to talk about the fall foliage. It’s more than just a part of our landscape — it’s a means of tourism and revenue as we invite “peepers” here year after year to share in the splendor of one of nature’s greatest shows.

But why do trees get all the glory? Can we bring our gaze down from the treetops and into the garden for a second? After all, trees are not the only living things with leaves and there are plenty of other plants that boast fall color as one of their defining characteristics. When it comes to choosing plants and planning your garden, taking this into consideration is an absolute must, especially if you’re someone like me who tries to squeeze every last drop of color out of the landscape before the snows of winter settle in. Below are some of my favorite, easy-to-grow woody shrubs that offer a real bang for your buck in the fall foliage department.

Fothergilla – This is, by far, one of my favorite plants and one that I’ve talked about before. For me, this woody shrub bookends the season by sporting fluffy white flowers in the very early spring and then stunning foliage in the fall. What’s especially nice is that the fiery orange and crimson leaves of Fothergilla stay on the shrub late so that when everything else has lost its leaves, this shrub is still taking your breath away.

Witch hazel

Witch hazel – A cousin of Fothergilla, witch hazel shares many of its best traits, including the foliage. Depending on the variety you get, expect to see reds, oranges or yellows but never expect to be disappointed. If you’re buying this plant strictly for its fall interest then you will want to go for the variety Hamemalis virginiana, which is what I have in my garden. Unlike other witch hazels which are usually the very first things to bloom in the spring, Hamemalis virginiana does the opposite and blooms in the late fall — rare for a woody plant.

Blueberry – Blueberries thrive in my neck of the woods and throughout most of the northeast, making this plant a necessary addition to any garden. You get the bounty of their delicious fruit in late July and early August, but not many people give the blueberry bush its credit when fall rolls around and its leaves turn to a fiery red. Its color is so potent that I always suggest it as a native substitute for the invasive burning bush.

Red Twig Dogwood – This one is a double whammy. Not only do you get the great fall foliage of its orange yellow leaves, but once those fall to the ground and are forgotten you’re left with the woody stems which seem to glow yellow to red, depending on the cultivar you choose. Set against the snow, this plant gets an A+ in the winter interest department, providing color when you need it the most.

Oak leaf hydrangea

Oak Leaf Hydrangea – Oak leaf hydrangea gets its name because of its (surprise!) oak-shaped leaves. Like most hydrangeas, it offers beautiful flowers, but once fall rolls around this one surprises with its large foliage that turns bronze, crimson and purple. The stems of this hydrangea have a papery bark that peels back in the autumn and winter, revealing a deep brown inner bark that makes for a great show in its own right.

Smokebush – Depending on the variety you get, Smokebush has deep red to purple oval-shaped foliage all year long that you think just couldn’t get any better, and then… it does! Its leaves fade to a showy orange-red to yellow in autumn that makes this one of those rare plants that’s grown almost exclusively for its foliage.

When it comes to plants, there are a lot of variables that affect its overall performance and fall foliage is no exception. Depending on conditions, the type of “show” you get out of your plants can vary from year to year and location to location. However, the plants listed above are all native plants that perform well in this area.

Related article: The How and Why of Fall Foliage

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Posted by Lisa Green on 09/02/14 at 01:58 PM • Permalink

Garden: Failure Only Leads To Growth

The following is a regular column that addresses basic issues facing the ever-inquisitive back- and front-yard toiler, proffered by someone who knows best; one of the fertile master gardeners from the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Brian Cruey.

Admittedly, my vegetable garden was low on my priority list this year. A number of construction projects, a new shade garden I’d put in last fall and a couple of problem dogs that learned how to jump out of their fence and into my chicken coop all seemed to keep pushing the veggie garden further and further down my “to-do list.” Honestly, I don’t even know why I put one in. I knew time was going to be tight for me this summer and a vegetable garden definitely requires a certain level of commitment. A lot of it is pressure I put on myself because I worry people will question my validity as a gardener if I’m not presenting them with jars of homemade pickles at the end of the season. “What do you mean you didn’t plant a vegetable garden this year?? And you still have the nerve to call yourself a gardener!”

But what’s worse: not having the garden at all or having a garden you don’t take care of? My vegetable garden, at this point, is a full-blown embarrassment. Nothing but weeds, un-staked tomato plants, lettuces that are starting to flower and overly ripened cucumbers and sugar snap peas growing up supports that are just about ready to topple over. 

Truth be told, I’m kind of glad not to have to put a lot of energy into the vegetable garden because it turned out to be a pretty rotten year for vegetables. Sure, a little of that might have to do with my neglect – weeds in your garden steal resources like water, sun and soil nutrients from your garden crops. However, even the vigilant food growers I’ve talked to are having a tough time. This summer has been cold, with nights regularly dipping into the low 50s and that just hasn’t been good for heat-loving plants like tomatoes and peppers. On top of that, things have been pretty wet, which has been great for the garden, but has also made it tough to control mildew and fungus – something that’s had an impact on my flowerbeds as well.

I’ve always been more excited about landscaping and my yard than I have been about vegetables. However, I am determined. Like anything, I just need to find a method that’s realistic for me and works for my environment. My vegetable garden measures 20 feet by 25 feet, giving me a lot of room to try different things, which is exactly what I’m going to do next year: On one side, I’m going to do a series of raised beds with lettuces, radishes and cold frames where I can start things early on and do multiple plantings throughout the season. On the other, I’m going to try black plastic, something I’ve avoided in the past but, after this year’s cold temperatures, am willing to try with my tomatoes. Black plastic heats up the soil, helps retain water and also keeps out weeds. To make my conscious feel better about using earth-unfriendly plastic, I’m going to try natural mulch with leaves and pine needles that I’ll rake up this fall and overwinter under a tarp. After next year, I’ll see which one works best for me and my garden, and adjust from there.

Everyone has garden failures, but that doesn’t mean that you should give up. Weather is unpredictable, environments change and life just gets in the way sometimes. However, as our season winds down and the signs of fall slowly start revealing themselves, remember, next year is a brand-new opportunity to try new things. Learning from your mistakes from season to season is the best way to grow as a gardener, and it’s a process that never ends, no matter what your skill level. 

Interested in furthering your education as a gardener? With classes starting in September, The Berkshire Botanical Garden’s Horticulture Certificate is an excellent opportunity for any garden enthusiast who wants to learn more about the science and art of plants.

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Posted by Amy Krzanik on 08/18/14 at 01:10 PM • Permalink

Time To Think About…Spring?

The following is a regular column that addresses basic issues facing the ever-inquisitive back- and front-yard toiler, proffered by someone who knows best; one of the fertile master gardeners from the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Brian Cruey.

Photos courtesy of the Berkshire Botanical Garden.

The past couple weeks of rainy, humid weather have been great for my garden. Know what else it has been great for? My weeds. I feel like I can’t keep up. I start weeding at one end of the flowerbed and by the time I reach the other side it’s like I have to start all over again. Same goes for mowing the grass, clipping the hedges and deadheading. It’s relentless.

Honestly, I think I’m just suffering from a little bit of general, summer fatigue. It’s not just the garden —  it’s the house guests, the grocery shopping, the cleaning, the events. There’s always so much going on that I can’t believe we’re almost into August.

Which is why you’re probably going to want to punch me in the face when I say that it’s time to start thinking about next spring. I know, I can’t wrap my head around it either. Next year’s garden? You’re kidding, right? Can’t this wait until January when I‘ve got nothing better to do than sit in front of the fire dreaming about the garden while eating gingersnaps and drinking (Irish) coffee? 

No. It can’t. Not when it comes to spring bulbs.

True, your daffodils, crocus, tulips and other spring bulbs don’t need to be planted until the fall. However, if you want to get the “good stuff” (hard-to-find cultivars, rare varieties and unusual colors) you’d better bust out the catalogs and start ordering. Yes, you can always make last-minute stops into your local garden center, but chances are you aren’t going to find a whole lot of selection and will have to stick with more run-of-the-mill stock, which, admittedly, includes proven cultivars that are all beautiful.

But it’s not just variety you want to be conscious of. I have a very simple philosophy when it comes to bulbs: MORE. Last year I planted 2,200 daffodils in an area of my yard that I’d dug up for another, unrelated project. While the soil was loose, it was the perfect time to plant that large, drifting field of daffodils that I’d always dreamed of. I was surprised at how limited I was in my selection because I was ordering so many. Granted, 2,200 is a little extreme, but I still wish I’d planned better. I placed my order in late August thinking I had plenty of time, but at the numbers I was looking to purchase, I was disappointed to miss out on a few varieties that I was really looking forward to.

If you’re ordering in really large numbers, talk to a landscape designer or garden center; they might be able to help you get better pricing. Designers will usually have the ability to buy at wholesale and get you a much better bang for your buck. The same goes for garden centers. The more you order and the farther in advance you plan, the better deal you’re likely to get. 

So take a break from weeding in the humidity and turn an eye towards spring. If you’re looking for a great selection of bulbs, the horticultural team at the Berkshire Botanical Garden has chosen some favorites for 2014 and made them available for sale via their website. All orders go to benefit the Berkshire Botanical Garden and will be available for pick-up in late September. Click here for more information.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 07/22/14 at 11:28 AM • Permalink

What Does A Bear Do In The Woods? Just Ask Brian.

Ordinarily, our garden guide, Brian Cruey from the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, offers advice for home gardeners. But a situation came up that prompted Brian to think that maybe RI readers who experience regular visits from wildlife would have some words of wisdom for him.

I am being terrorized by a family of bears. 

Now, I’m not one of those people who moves to the middle of the woods and then is surprised to find themselves surrounded by wildlife.  As a matter of fact, I consider myself very lucky to live in a place where nature — bugs and all — are a part of my daily life. 

My affair with the bears started around Christmas when my dad gave me a game-cam.  I live on 130 acres in Otis and often wonder who else shares my little corner of earth (or heaven, as I like to think of it). A game-cam, by the way, is a motion-sensored, waterproof digital camera.  It is a small box that comes with long, adjustable straps so that you can secure it to tree trunks. Whenever anything passes in front of it, it snaps a photo (or video) with a date and time stamp. It even comes with an infrared flash to capture images at night.  Game-cans are often used by hunters, bird watchers, wild life enthusiasts and people who are suspicious of their house cleaners.

The game-can introduced me to my bear neighbors. About two months after setting up the camera deep in the woods, I downloaded the photos and was delighted to see a young black bear amongst the lineup of porcupines, squirrels and myself walking the dogs on the trail.  “Oh wow, a bear! How cute!” I thought. Subsequent months of game-camming revealed that the bear LIVED for the limelight and I got a lot of good shots of the bear hamming it up for the camera.

If only the bear had stayed on camera. About four weeks ago, I was out near the flowerbeds, relaxing with a glass of wine and watching the bees in my two backyard beehives, when I noticed the top cover to one of my hives was off, though the bees themselves seemed to be undisturbed. We’d had a pretty nasty bout of storms the night before so I assumed that the top had been blown off in the wind. I recapped the hives and thought nothing of it. 

Then, two weeks later, all hell broke loose. Like any normal day after work, I went to the gazebo with a glass of sparkling rosé over ice (don’t judge me) and noticed immediately that one of my hives was in complete shambles. Hive frames were all over the place, strewn from my garden into the woods. A large fothergilla shrub was trampled and destroyed (sadly, one of my favorite shrubs) and there were bees everywhere. 

After chugging the rosé, I got my bee suit on and started doing triage on the hives which were, surprisingly, not too damaged. There were only about three frames that were unsalvageable so I was feeling pretty good that the hives would be OK.  That same night, the hives were hit again, and this time the damage was much more severe — but still not unsalvageable. I managed to get them back in order and decided to move them to the dog run, which is fenced and has an electric current running over a top wire (a new addition as my dogs have very recently learned how to climb the fence and escape). Surely, the bees would be safe in there.

They weren’t. And from that point on I began finding every day that there were a lot of things that weren’t safe on my property.  After another hit on the hives, the bear (I’d figured it out) ripped a screen out of my gazebo. The following night, a text from my neighbor confirmed it: “Brian it’s Mary from down the street. The bear going through your trash in your front yard is ADORABLE.” (Mind you, the trash is housed in a shed that I thought was bear-proof.) The next day I got home and my chickens were out of their run having the time of their lives free ranging in the yard.  Guess the bear figured out how to open that door too — though thankfully, it spared the chickens and just ate the scraps that were supposed to be for them. 

This past weekend marked the end of my bees. A last-ditch effort to keep the hives together with tension straps didn’t work: they were ripped apart and totally destroyed. By that point, though, there wasn’t much left of them and frankly, the daily routine of salvaging my beehives was wearing me down. 

After talking to my neighbors, I learned that I wasn’t the only one having a problem. Grills overturned, coolers raided, fences breached…we were all being pestered with this bear and it wasn’t going away. It was really disheartening and honestly I was getting a little depressed about it. I felt like I was failing to keep my home and my animals safe and I wasn’t sure what to do. I’m still not.

But then yesterday, I was driving home down our dirt road and just about hit a big black bear as I rounded a corner a little too fast. After slamming on the breaks, I was just starting to think, “Too bad I didn’t hit and kill that son of a…” when two little bear cubs crossed the road following the bigger bear into the woods. Another larger bear crossed after them.

At that point I had two realizations:  1.) Holy $#!% There are four bears, not one.  2.) I can’t be mad at these bears. They are just doing their thing and I’m going to just have to figure out a better way to keep them out of my stuff. A stronger electric fence, a better door to the trash shed, dogs that aren’t completely worthless when it comes to guarding the place.  I’ll figure it out. Because at the end of the day my gut reaction is still “Oh wow, a bear!”


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Posted by Lisa Green on 07/09/14 at 04:20 PM • Permalink