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Garden: Feeling Spring Feverish

The following is a regular column that addreses 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, who is as delighted as every gardener that spring appears to have arrived. Here he offers the basics on a bit of spring cleaning for your garden.

Helleborus saying hello.

YES! I am ready to believe! I can cautiously commit to being excited about spring now. I say cautiously because I think we can all remember a time or two when we were certain that spring was here to stay only to have our optimism crushed by an April (or even May) snowfall. However, with the ground warming and those really cold days getting less and less likely, even that snow usually doesn’t last too long and it’s back to business as usual before no time.

Maybe I’m still riding my Vitamin D high, but in many ways, this time of year is one of my favorites in the garden. I spend so much time just looking at the ground for signs of life, it’s like “Where’s Waldo.” But in this version I’m trying to spot the tips of daffodils, the round tiny heads of my sedums coming up through the leaves or the pointy, red crowns of my peonies just starting to pierce the soil. These small signs are so meaningful after a long winter, and in just a few short weeks they’ll be everywhere.

Peonies playing peek-a-boo.

Of course, that growth means the arrival of another rite of spring: chores. While I’m taking that first long look at the garden, it’s good to look for other things: clogged drains, downed branches, maybe (if you’re me) a garden tool that somehow didn’t quite make it to the barn. Also look at your stone walls and paths. The freeze and thaw of winter and spring can cause a lot of heaving and movement. The same goes for stones in your yard. Every year during my first mow, I get surprised by a new rock that wasn’t there the year before. Take the time to walk your lawn and look for new obstacles that might have popped up before you find it with your mower.

Also look for broken limbs in your shrubs and trees that may have been caused by the wind or snowfall. Now is a good time to prune back damaged or dead branches. I also like to do a bit of clearing this time of year as well. With the ground wet and loose, it’s easier to pull out small seedlings and other brush. Be careful though — I don’t usually like to cut brush back at this time, instead focusing on things that I can only pull out by the root. Sometimes when you cut back brush in spring, you can unintentionally stimulate even more growth. 

Also, watch your step. Moving around the garden during this time can be tricky. There’s a lot that you can’t see getting ready to pop up and the topsoil is wet and loose. You don’t want to damage your plants by stepping in the wrong spot. After all — they’ve waited just as long as you have for spring!

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Posted by Lisa Green on 04/08/14 at 08:29 AM • Permalink

Garden: Dear Diary

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, who is just as anxious for spring as you are. But the delayed season is good for one thing: setting up a gardener’s essential tool. You might not appreciate it until next year, Brian says, but now is the time to start a garden diary.

If you’re feeling like spring is really late this year, you’re right. Of course, technically, spring didn’t officially start until today (March 20). But this time last year, we had snowdrops (Galanthus) coming up at the Garden, all of our witch hazel (Hamamelis Intermedia) was in full bloom, and there was a nice carpet of Eranthis hyemalis (winter aconite) visible from the road as you drove by. Still, even with all of that spring around, it did snow almost 9 inches on this very day last year, so it wasn’t all deviled eggs and daffodils. March in our region — you either hate it or you HATE IT.

I know what happened this time last year because I wrote it down and took pictures. Keeping track of what happens in your garden year to year is not only an important tool in knowing what works and what doesn’t, but it also helps you to recognize patterns, not just with specific plants, but with your garden as a whole. Weather conditions, bloom dates, diseases and pests, fertilization schedules: these are all things worth noting and keeping a record of. You’ll not only know what to expect in your garden and when, but it will be an invaluable tool when you start planning for the following year. Like anything, the longer you have your garden and the bigger it gets, the harder it is to keep track of important information.

The degree to which you track your garden is up to you. I confess I’m not the most consistent person when it comes to keeping a journal. Growing up, I desperately wanted to be that self-reflective soul who ended each day with a poignant commentary on my life, a la Doogie Howser. The result was a shelf full of journals that had one entry each, and nothing but empty pages after that. I’m slightly better with my garden journal these days, but not by much; it’s sporadic at best. But, in this digital age, there are other easy ways to keep a garden journal.

One of my favorite ways to document my garden is through photography. Each photo I take on my digital camera has a date and time stamp, making it easy to scroll through the calendar year and see a visual representation of what was happening in my garden throughout. I also try to keep all of my gardening receipts together so when it comes to ordering compost I know who I ordered it from the previous year, how much I got, and how much I paid for it.

There are lots of high-end garden journals out there and if you’re looking for something fancy, you’ll have no problem finding it. However, in my opinion, a spiral notebook works just fine. Like most things in your gardening life, it’s going to get beat up and dirty. There is also something to be said for keeping your records online or in a computer program (like Word) that makes your journal searchable, so if you’re looking back to see when your alliums came up last year, it’s only a matter of a simple word search.

Now is the time to start your record keeping. The signs of spring are starting to pop up around us, in the garden and beyond. Soon there will be life all around us, and it’ll be hard to attend to anything else. Let’s cross our fingers that after a year of good garden journaling, you’ll be celebrating how early the spring of 2015 came compared to that of 2014.

Happy spring!

 

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Posted by Lisa Green on 03/18/14 at 05:34 PM • Permalink

Garden: A Guide To Growing Herbs Indoors

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. Since few things (other than snowmen) grow in the snow, Brian Cruey offers tips on growing herbs indoors.

With my recent discovery of Tillandsia, I’m feeling emboldened. So far I seem to be keeping this plant alive which is a good thing, given my track record for growing things indoors. Maybe I’m ready to give houseplants another try? Besides, I am feeling restless.  I’m ready to see things growing again and given this recent bout of relentless snow, spring planting season feels much longer away than I am willing to wait.

What I would really like are fresh herbs, which I have never been successful with indoors. Over and over I have tried and for some reason I always fail. However, the appeal is too much to resist so I am going to give it another go. But this time I’m asking for help: I decided to go straight to the experts and asked the Berkshire Botanical Garden’s Herb Associates if they had any advice on how I could improve my success rate with my indoor herb garden. The Herb Associates are a dedicated group of Garden volunteers who have been passing down growing tips, recipes and seeds for almost 80 years and are still going strong today. Whenever I need an unusually delicious cookie recipe or a light dressing for my salad, they are the first ones I ask. Not surprisingly, they didn’t disappoint when I approached them for advice on my indoor endeavor. Here’s what they had to say:

Pick the right plant. If you’ve had trouble growing indoor plants, stay away from temperamental herbs. Basil, cilantro and sage, for example, are difficult to grow inside even in the summer. Stick to plants that are more carefree like oregano, parsley, lemongrass, chives and mint. 

Choose the right spot. Even though you may want to have your herbs growing in your kitchen window, if you aren’t getting enough sunlight there you might be setting yourself up for failure. South and southwest facing windows are best. You need at least five hours of light a day, so monitor the spot that you’re thinking about placing your herbs in and make sure you’re meeting those requirements. As far as temperature goes, your plants like it to be around 68 or 70 degrees. If you’re home and feel like you need to turn the heat up or down, your plants are probably thinking the same thing.

Pot your herbs separately and don’t use clay. Often we see herbs grouped together in one pot for aesthetics but this is not ideal for growing. Putting everything in one container creates competition amongst the plants and herbs like mint can quickly take over. Also, stay away from clay pots. Though they’re good for drainage, clay pots tend to draw out moisture much more quickly in the winter months when heaters are on and the air is dry. Plastic or glazed pots work better for this reason. When planting, use a high-grade potting soil and avoid using soil from your outdoor garden. Regardless of the container you use, make sure that it offers good drainage — standing water in pots will quickly rot the roots and eventually kill the plant.

Encourage growth. Rotate your plants so they get even sunlight and exposure to the colder, window-facing side of the plant, and don’t let the plant touch the glass. One of the biggest mistakes people make growing plants indoors is overwatering. You want to keep the soil moist, but not too wet. If your plants’ leaves start to turn yellow, this is the first sign of overwatering and you should cut back. Because you’re growing in a contained space, fertilizer is also a good idea. Add a tablespoon of fish emulsion to one gallon of water and use that for watering to help promote growth. Like all herbs, you’ll want to pinch them back regularly to keep new growth forming.

I was told that if I’m having a problem, 90 percent of the time it can attributed to lighting or water issues, so try adjusting those two things before anything else. Hopefully with these troubleshooting tips, I can not only convince these plants to grow, but maybe it will help to convince spring to come just a little bit earlier, as well.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 02/18/14 at 10:00 AM • Permalink

My Pre-Lecture Q&A With Master Gardener Louis Benech

Louis Benech

This week, Brian Cruey of the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge prepares us for the BBG’s popular Winter Lecture by going to Paris (well, by phone, anyway) to interview the renowned guest speaker, Louis Benech.

When it comes to rock stars of the gardening world, they don’t come much more celebrated than Louis Benech. Known for his bold, yet seemingly effortless, designs, Benech has become an icon of style and innovation over his 30-year career as a landscape architect. In France, his home country, Benech has been commissioned to do some of the most famous public landscaping projects in recent memory, including the gardens of the Elysée Palace, the Tuileries gardens and most recently the Bosquet du Théâtre d’Eau at the Palace of Versaille. He has designed more than 300 gardens all over the world, both public and private, that range from historic restoration to virgin landscapes. On February 8, Mr. Benech will bring that collective experience to Monument Mountain High School where he will be presenting “Freedom and Responsibility In My Approach to Gardens” as part of Berkshire Botanical Garden’s annual Winter Lecture. All proceeds from the 2014 Winter Lecture go to support Berkshire Botanical Garden education programs.

I was lucky enough to speak with Louis last week about his upcoming trip and his lecture. Via phone as he drove into Paris, he answered my questions about how he approaches garden design and what he considers when taking on new clients.

Brian Cruey:  How would you describe your design style?
Louis Benech:  I feel like a chameleon in that I really have no style – I try to do things with style, but no special style. I try to understand what a person is looking for and what will fit the place, more than anything else. My feeling is that I am trying to make something that looks like it has always been there – to connect the site, type of house, period of house and of course the location geographically. These things direct my work and the type of style I approach from the very beginning.

Chateau d’O, Normandy

BC:  What are the first few things you look for at a site before you start considering design options?
LB:  First I consider geographically where I am. For example when I came to the United States for the first time, it was to Boston and my very first stop was the Arnold Arboretum to learn about the plants of an area beyond what I know from books, and to get a feel of what plants I can use and how to use them in the proper way. I always approach a space with the same target: to make a place better. After that I approach a space in terms of my client’s way of life, because a garden should be connected to how you live. For example, the first garden I ever did on my own when I was first getting my wings was for a woman who was blind. I didn’t give a lot of consideration to color and shape. Rather it was where she would walk, what were the different touches she would experience and how were the scents. This woman wouldn’t have the same type of garden I would design, say, for someone who has five children who are at an age of playing soccer. If you are a cook, a good kitchen garden is important and I love to incorporate that. If you dislike vegetables and cooking, what use do you have for it? Everyone has needs that are totally different and this is the first thing that I consider.

BC:  Do you prefer designing private gardens or public spaces?
LB:  That depends on where. In France, I’m not mad about public commissions because there you have a team of people making decisions and the common choice is not always the wisest. I prefer when I am working for one person and one direction rather than too many. Sometimes, in public situations, you do have just one person giving you direction, and that is better. Of course, the best situation is when you have no one making those decisions and you are free. Regardless, a garden is a place of happiness, I hope, and I’m always thinking of the people who will be enjoying that place, whether that is for hundreds of people in a public place or only for one family in a private garden.

Faubourg Saint-Germain, Paris

BC:  Are there certain “rules” you follow when starting a garden design from scratch?
LB:  I try to get the best results for the lowest maintenance possible. A garden is always work and just because you have the money to build something doesn’t mean you have the money to have three gardeners year round to maintain it. I’ve been lucky to work on projects where a lot of maintenance is possible and for gardeners who know what is happening. But so many clients simply don’t even have a clue what a weed is or know what pruning is. You have to think of the gardening capacity of a place before you begin.  What I don’t want is to push people into being slaves to their gardens. Otherwise people are disappointed or just lost when they try to maintain their gardens. I love the idea that a garden can survive itself.

The Winter Lecture: Master Gardener Louis Benech on “Freedom and Responsibility in My Approach to Gardens”
Saturday, February 8 at 2 p.m.
Monument Mountain High School, Great Barrington, MA
(413) 298-3926

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Posted by Lisa Green on 01/27/14 at 04:59 PM • Permalink

Garden: Planting The Seeds Of Garden Planning

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. This week, though he may be shivering in his boots, Brian Cruey tells gardeners to stay indoors (at home or at the Botanical Garden), but do some planning.

I don’t know about you, but to me, “polar vortex” sounds like a ride at Six Flags that I am too much of a wimp to ride. I’m not sure when we reached this era in modern weather forecasting when everything started to get a name, but I love it. It really adds a lot of drama. I think we should take a step further. How about “Scattered Snow Flurries Samantha,” “Patches of Dense Fog Marvin” or “Slight Chance of Showers Steve?” 

Call it whatever you want, it’s winter no matter which way you slice it. Summer seems like a million miles away. With weeks like the one we’ve just had, it’s hard for me to believe that summer even exists at all. Can a kaleidoscope of color and lush fields of green really be resting beneath this landscape of grey and white? 

The answer, of course, is yes and, as a gardener, it’s important to use winter to your benefit (and not just as an excuse to watch every episode of the Real Housewives franchise). Winter is a time for planning and education. For me, once things actually start to grow, I have very little time to do anything but react to the garden — pruning, weeding, dividing. I become a physical presence that is focused on maintenance. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought, “next year I am going to do…” and then next year gets here and before I know it, the plants or seeds I want are sold out or out of stock. 

Now is the time to order new plants, sketch new gardens and get all your ducks in a row so that you have the materials and knowledge to start new endeavors as soon as that first crocus starts to peek up through the snow. If you’re looking for a local resource, the Berkshire Botanical Garden has an incredible curriculum of classes and free events that can help you ponder your garden and its potential for 2014. For example, on February 12, there’s the annual Seed-A-Thon, where you’ll have the opportunity to consult our Horticulture Team as you flip through the 2014 seed catalogs. You can share with fellow gardeners what new plants you plan to try this year and what did or didn’t work for you in the past. There are also more than 30 classes taking place between now and April, ranging from Botanical Painting to Tomato Basics and Pruning for Fruit Production.

When the days are warm and long and the weeds are tall and thriving, it can be hard to do anything but react to nature’s outpouring. Use winter in the RI region as your opportunity to grow as a gardener and plan for the spring that I’m pretty sure will come when the polar vortex whips its way back to where it belongs.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 01/08/14 at 11:15 AM • Permalink

Garden: Turning A New Leaf

By Brian Cruey

I’m probably the only person in the world that likes New Year’s resolutions.  Maybe I am a masochist, but after a month of full-on gluttony and good cheer brought by the holidays, I think it’s healthy to take a step back and look at my shortcomings over the past year and consider ways that I can improve.  I try to avoid the resolution pitfalls of setting totally unrealistic goals like “exercise” or “floss more.” Rather, I prefer to find modest, attainable milestones that I might actually accomplish.  This year, my resolutions include:

1. Find a way to not hate winter so much
2. Get my Rural Intelligence articles in on time
3. Stop pretending to like kale
4. Have more indoor plants and keep them alive

I’m hoping that if I can accomplish #4 that it might help me with #1.  I’m terrible with houseplants.  Despite my (modest) successes outdoors, I’m just not talented with indoor gardening. Part of the problem is that I set myself up for failure by buying plants that take a lot of monitoring, care and have very specific needs that aren’t suited to every indoor environment. To rectify this problem I’ve been doing a lot of research on plants that are easy to take care of, are hardy and are able to be grown by just about anyone in any household environment.

Air plants, or Tillandsia fit into these parameters perfectly.  Tillandsia is a type of bromeliad that gets all of the nutrients and water that they need by absorbing it through their leaves.  The plants do have a root system, but it is designed more to attach itself to other plants, rocks trees or the ground rather than a vehicle for food – meaning that they don’t need to be grown in soil.  This not only makes the plant easy to care for, but also allows you to grow the plant in very nontraditional and unique ways.

Take for example the wreath shown here that I recently purchased at this year’s Holiday Marketplace at the Berkshire Botanical Garden.  Made of the Tillandsia variety Tillandsia Abdita, the plants have been “sewn” onto a grapevine wreath frame with wire. I’m currently using it as a centerpiece on my dining room table, but will hang it in my bathroom window after the holidays where it will be exposed to humidity from my morning shower everyday.  Once a week I place the wreath (face down) in my sink filled with two inches of water and let it soak for half an hour after which I shake it to remove any excess water.  That’s all it needs! 

Soaking is a great way to make sure that the plants are getting their fill of water, but you can also mist air plants regularly (at least three times a week) using a spray bottle.  Excess water on the plant can get stuck under leaves and lead to rot, so make sure that if you are soaking the plant, you shake it out properly.  You’ll also want to make sure that Tillandisa is in a place with well circulated air flow and in a room that doesn’t get below 50 degrees.  It needs access to sun, but when the weather turns warm, make sure that the light is indirect.  Remember, these plants are used to growing on other plants and are accustom to shade and partial sun. 

Growing air plants is more than just a horticultural endeavor.  Their growth habits and easy-to-care-for nature make them ideal for terrariums and design projects like the hanging terrariums and mini garden pictured here.  With over 540 varieties of this plant to choose from, you have a lot of options. 

I’m hoping that this is my “gateway” houseplant that is going to help make the winter of 2014 a greener, more enjoyable place.  If you have any houseplants that you swear by, let me know by emailing me at bcruey@berkshirebotanical.org.

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Posted by Scott Baldinger on 12/18/13 at 12:40 PM • Permalink

Garden: Amaryllis, The Gift That Keeps Giving

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. This week, moving indoors, Brian Cruey offers tips on a lovely gift to bring to that Thanksgiving/Hannukah celebration taking place next week.

Thanksgiving is next week and I am hosting my better half’s family. This is the third year in a row that they’ve come up for the holiday and, for better or worse, it’s turning into a tradition. Matt’s family is Jewish, so dividing up the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays was a pretty easy negotiation. Honestly, I don’t mind hosting. I enjoy cooking, and having it take place at my house allows me to control the menu, which is basically what my mother has been making for as many Thanksgivings as I can remember. (Jewish readers know that Hanukkah falls over Thanksgiving this year, and despite my father in-law’s repeated suggestion, I am not making a Manischewitz-braised turkey.) If I can’t spend Thanksgiving with my mom, then I am at the very least going to spend it with her recipes. 

If you’re a guest at someone’s table, you’re probably going to want to bring something. Dessert? Wine? A drunk uncle? It’s not always easy trying to decide. Like it or not, Thanksgiving kicks off the “season of giving” and if you’re in need of a great gift idea, or simply something to bring as a gift for your host, then let me offer a suggestion:  Amaryllis. 

While I know this is not a groundbreaking idea, I do think it’s one that is often cast aside as unoriginal. To me, this is still the perfect gift. It’s practically a care-free houseplant that is all but guaranteed to bloom, regardless of your capabilities of keeping indoor plants alive, and the show it puts on is spectacular. It is also well timed. Give someone an amaryllis at Thanksgiving, for example, and it should be in bloom just in time for the solstice. Give it at Christmas and it will be blooming as the worst of winter starts to rear its ugly head, when we need a burst of spring color the most. Pair it with a unique pot for planting and you’ve made it an even nicer gift.

You can find these bulbs just about anywhere—at the grocery store, the hardware store, even the drugstore. These types of vendors will usually sell the big, red showy flowers that we’ve all come to associate with this plant. However, if you dig a little deeper, you can find some really amazing varieties that are truly unique, such as the Amaryllis Chico (above right) or Amaryllis Picotee (below left). Mail order catalogs and nurseries will usually roll out new models each year, so the selection is always growing. I like to find these varieties, pot them, and then give them as gifts without description. It makes for quite the nice surprise when they bloom, as it’s not often what people are expecting. 

Whether you’re giving an amaryllis as a gift or lucky enough to have received one, here is what you should do to take care of it: If you are given a bare bulb, find a pot that will fit the bulb comfortably both in width and depth. Fill the pot half way with a well-draining potting mix. Make sure to put something underneath the pot to catch water that may drain from the bottom. Wet the soil in the bottom of the pot and then place the amaryllis bulb on top. Fill in around the bulb with soil until only the top 1/3 of the bulb is showing above the soil, leaving about a half an inch or so from the top of the pot to allow for watering. Water lightly.

Place your potted bulb in an area with good sunlight that stays above 60 degrees. The warmer the area, the quicker the plant is likely to grow and flower. Keep the plant watered, but on the dry side. You don’t want to overwater and cause the roots to rot, especially just after potting. It can take blooms a while to form, depending on the type of bulb and growing conditions, so be patient. As long as your bulb doesn’t feel “squishy” to the touch, it’s doing just fine.

A lot of people will toss their amaryllis after blooming, but you can easily get them to bloom year after year with the right kind of care. I would tell you about that now, but I have a funny feeling someone will be writing about it when the holidays are over. (Hint: I’m going to write about this when the holidays are over.)

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Posted by Scott Baldinger on 11/19/13 at 04:47 PM • Permalink

Garden: A Rake’s Progress

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. This week, Brian Cruey offers sympathy for those who have to engage in the seemingly endless task of gathering fallen leaves and offers tips on how to make all the work more worthwhile in the long run.

The fall foliage has stopped being beautiful and has started being a real pain in the ass. Long woodland walks have quickly turned into endless afternoons raking leaves. It’s like this cruel Zen game where as soon as I finish, I turn around and—more leaves! Are you kidding! There aren’t even trees over there! Time to start all over again. After failing to convince myself that this is a “fun” chore, I usually just go get the lawn mower and start mowing over them—a great technique to use if you have a mulching mower and you mow frequently enough.

I always try to keep in mind that I am raking up a mini goldmine. Leaves are great for your compost pile—and more importantly, great for your WINTER compost pile. A lot of people don’t think about it, but your compost pile doesn’t stop working once the temperature drops.

It’s true that, like Amtrak, tourism, and my metabolism, the microbes that break down the organic material in your compost are sluggish during the winter months. However, there are steps that you can take to optimize the production and health of your compost. For starters, make sure that your compost is covered. This not only provides insulation, but it also helps to regulate moisture. It’s true that you want to keep your compost pile moist, but too much moisture can cause your compost to slow down and heavy snows can have a negative effect. Covering your compost also keeps the snow off, so that when you want to add new material, you can get easier access. Be sure to weigh down the edges with stones or bricks so the wind doesn’t blow it away. The real goal here is to contain the heat, which helps to facilitate decomposition. In addition to covering the pile, create a windbreak around your compost by using hay bales, logs, cinder blocks or bags of raked leaves—anything that’s going to help contain the heat in your pile.

Next, you will want to chop up your kitchen scraps and green materials to a smaller than usual size. The smaller the better, but try to get things down to under 2 inches. Even in the summer months, this is a good way to speed up compost production, but it’s critical during the winter. Because my compost pile is kind of far from my house, I have a pail that sits outside the back door in which to collect scraps. It’ll be cold, so you won’t have to worry about the waste getting too stinky and you can cut down the number of trips to the compost pile. When you do make the trek to add new green material to the compost, cover newly added waste with a nice layer of all those dead leaves you raked in the fall. Again, this helps create a layer of insulation and, once the spring rolls around, that material should break down pretty quickly. 

Even though the snows are deep and the temperatures are cold, your compost pile is still hard at work—there’s no need to lapse in your efforts during the winter freeze. Your garden will thank you come spring!

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Posted by Scott Baldinger on 11/02/13 at 10:53 AM • Permalink

Garden: The How and Why of Fall Foliage

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. This week, Brian Cruey explains the science behind the gorgeous displays we see all over at this time of year.

Somewhere, buried deep in the depths of the memory graveyard known as my mom’s basement, there is a box marked “LEAVES.”  Inside are hundreds of fall leaves that, as a kid, I collected and then forced my mom to preserve for me. Who knows how many countless hours that poor woman spent each autumn ironing dead leaves between pieces of wax paper. Not that I wasn’t selective – you had to be a pretty special leaf to make the cut, displaying either pure perfection or a flaw so awesome that it deserved eternity. Some of these treasures would be cut out and made into bookmarks, ornaments, note cards, or drink coasters that I would give out as Christmas gifts, but a lot ended up being tossed into that box because 1.) I would always make way too many and 2.) my mom couldn’t ever come to terms with throwing anything I made away. A tradition she continues even now when I’m well into my thirties.

I thought the whole thing was magic. The wax paper, for sure, but also the process of the changing of the leaves in general. Even at our youngest, the color pallet that comes with every fall resonated inside of us, stirring emotion and imagination. I think one of the reasons that the phenomenon of autumn is so captivating year after year isn’t just because it’s beautiful, which indeed it is, but because it still conjures that same spark of wonder inside of us.

Of course, it’s not magic. It’s boring old science but that doesn’t make it any less amazing. The truth is, the vibrant colors that we see dotting our hillsides have, in some part, been there all season long. Leaves don’t exactly “change” color so much as they lose a color. That color of course being the green that we see all summer long. In the summer months, trees (and most plants) use the process of photosynthesis to convert sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water into oxygen and glucose – a type of sugar that the plant uses as food. Trees use their leaves to capture those elements (light, rain, and carbon dioxoide) and the leaves contain a chemical – chlorophyll – that makes the process of photosynthesis possible. It just so happens that the chlorophyll, more often than not, has a very dominant green pigment. 

When the days start to get shorter and sunlight becomes less available, not only do people start shutting down their vacation homes, but trees start shutting down their sugar factories. The chlorophyll in a leaf, with all of its green pigment, fades away and reveals the yellows, oranges, reds, and browns that were there all along.

The color that remains is what we see in the fall, and it is a common design tool gardeners use to add interest to a landscape. There are many things to consider when choosing a tree for your home garden, which we’ve talked about before, one of those being fall color. Put the bright yellow autumn foliage of the Gingko Biloba against the reds of the Red Maple and the oranges of Witch Hazel, and you’ll have a color display that could rival any summer garden. Some plants are even named after their fall color, like the invasive burning bush that is so prevalent in this area and simply stunning this time of year. It’s not so rare for a plant’s greatest attribute to be its fall display.

Of course, we all know that some fall “shows” are better than others and the potency of that yellow and red is dependent on external factors. In general, the best fall foliage occurs in years when we’ve had a warm, wet spring, a summer that’s not too hot or dry, and a fall that has plenty of warm sunny days and cool nights – weather we are often lucky enough to experience most years here in the Berkshires, which is why people from all over pour into the region to see the amazing colors painting our gorgeous hillsides.  Like most things, it’s just better in the Berkshires!

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Posted by Scott Baldinger on 10/16/13 at 08:36 AM • Permalink

Garden: Falling for the Crocus

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. This week, Brian Cruey rethinks his reservations about autumn and waxes poetic about the season’s flowering beauty.

crocusIf you read this column regularly (hi mom!), you know I have been kind of whiny and down on the fall. I always have a hard time letting go of summer and admitting that it’s over, and I’ve been pretty vocal about it. However, this week has made me take back every bad thing I’ve said about autumn. If you were in the Berkshires this past weekend, there was no way you couldn’t have fallen in love with the magic that is early fall. It was one of those weekends where I found myself taking a big step back and thinking, “I can’t believe I’m lucky enough to live here!”

It may just be me, but the foliage seems to be exceptional this year. The trees are doing their thing in a big way and the plants in my garden are putting on a show of their own as they wind down the season and turn various shades of red, yellow, and brown. With all of those warm, earthy tones taking over, it makes it all the more shocking when, in the middle of it all, there’s a burst of spring color.

I’m talking about the bizarre little plant known as the fall crocus. I love this plant. The color and timing of Colchicum Autumnale is so shocking in contrast to the rest of the garden at this time of year that it causes most people to do a double-take and ask, “What is that??” 

crocus2The fall crocus looks like a crocus, with all its beautiful pastel coloring and low-to-the-ground flowers, but it blooms in the early fall. Bulbs should be planted in early to mid September, or as soon as you receive them if you order them from a catalog or online retailer. This is an earlier planting time than your other bulbs like allium and narcissus, which you’ll want to plant in mid October. Usually, you’ll start to see blooms appear in late September on a single stem with no accompanying foliage—another attribute that makes this plant so interestingly weird. The foliage (about 3-8 leaves around a foot in length) comes up in early spring and dies back in the summer months. Like most bulbs, the Colchicum has the most impact when planted in large groupings or drifts—at least that’s my own personal opinion. Also, like most bulbs, they’ll start to naturalize and multiply over time. 

This is a great plant to have in your garden when you want that unusual touch of something that is going to turn heads. It’s also a great reminder to us, on the eve of winter, of what we have to look forward to in the spring.

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Posted by Scott Baldinger on 10/02/13 at 11:40 AM • Permalink