Garden: A Fungus Among Us
The following is a regular column that addresses basic issues facing the ever-inquisitive back- and front-yard toiler, proffered by the people who know best, the fertile master gardeners from the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge. This week, Brian Cruey of the BBG ponders the sticky situation of treating mildew on plants.
This week we got a question from someone who can’t seem to keep powdery mildew out of their vegetable garden, particularly on their squash and cucumbers. When you think of garden pains, this is certainly one of the most common, and it doesn’t just impact veggies — in my garden I always seem to have a problem with it in regards to phlox and bee balm.
Thankfully, there are steps that you can take to tackle mildew. You should start by trying to avoid the problem altogether by taking preventative measures. If you are planting in the same spot as last year, remove all of the dead plant material instead of tilling it under the soil. Next, when purchasing your seeds or seedlings, try to pick a cultivar that is known to be resistant to disease and avoid planting in the shade.
Once you have seedlings in the ground, it is recommended that you mulch — mildew is a spore that comes from the soil, and mulch can often suppress its spread. You’ll also want to be careful as to how you water. Try not to splash the leaves; water at the base of the plant (as with drip irrigation), not from above, and avoid over-watering.
If you do notice powdery mildew forming on your plants, remove the affected areas immediately. You also might want to try thinning out the plants with selective pruning; often mildew can start forming when there isn’t adequate air flow through the plant. We also recommend a baking soda spray that you can make at home by mixing one gallon of water with one tablespoon of baking soda, two tablespoons of vegetable oil, and one tablespoon of liquid soap (such as hand soap). Use this spray every two weeks.
If the problem still persists, it might just be possible that it isn’t powdery mildew at all. There are some insects that can cause powdery mildew-like symptoms — take a close look at your plants and look for any signs that could indicate pests just to make sure.(0) Comments
Enjoy this post? Share it with others.
Garden: Rejuvenating Lilacs
The following is a regular column that addresses basic issues facing the ever-inquisitive back and front-yard toiler, proffered by the people who know best, the fertile master gardeners from the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge. This week, they ponder the proper care of lilacs.
Sometimes in the garden, we don’t think about plant problems until they are staring us in the face. Often, however, the solution to these problems are things that take a fair bit of foresight — planting the right plant in the right place, soil quality, and in the case of this week’s subject, pruning.
I know some people who are so desperate to turn back the clock a few years that they would gladly give up a limb if that’s what it took. When it comes to rejuvenating lilacs, that is exactly what needs to happen. Lilacs are mostly in their prime right now (or just finishing up) and a lot of people notice that their older shrubs are leggy, with few blooms, and want to know why their plants aren’t weighted down with flowers like their neighbors’. The truth is, that for most species of lilac, the best blooms form on branches that are between three and five years old.
That means that you need to get rid of the old stuff. If you have older plants, you will want to plan this out over a three-year period, cutting back the oldest branches, all the way down to the ground, after the plant has flowered in the spring. This will encourage new growth throughout the growing season. Never cut more than 1/3 of the plant back at one time. Pruning all at once won’t leave the plant enough resources to encourage adequate new growth. The next year, cut out another 1/3 of the remaining old growth and repeat again the following year. You’ll also want to keep an eye on the new shoots, thinning as necessary to prevent overcrowding and to maintain the shape of the plant.
Once you’ve gotten your lilac back in shape, you’ll want to continue routine pruning to keep the plant looking young and fresh.(0) Comments
Enjoy this post? Share it with others.
Garden: Losing Impatiens
The following is a regular column that addresses basic issues facing the ever-inquisitive back and front-yard toiler, proffered by the people who know best, the fertile master gardeners from the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge. This week, they ponder the impatiens dilemma.
Impatiens are an annual favorite: easy to grow, shade tolerant, and for the most part, a great bang for your buck. Normally, this time of year you could walk into any garden center and find tables that are filled with what seems like endless flats of their pink, white, red, and purple blooms. So what gives? Why doesn’t anyone seem to be carrying this go-to container plant this year? Nurseries across the area just don’t seem to have them and for good reason. It’s all due to the fungus Plasmopara obducens, better known as Downy Mildew.
Sometime in 2011, Downy Mildew started showing up in the Northeast and by 2012 it was everywhere. It affects the variety walleriana, which, for the most part, is what you have been buying at your local garden center for as far back as you can remember. The disease works something like this: Your leaves start to look yellow or mottled, with some getting a white “downy” growth on the underside of the leaves. The leaves eventually fall off leaving you with leggy stems that result in a total collapse of the plant. It ain’t pretty.
Sound familiar? Did it happen to you last year? It’s likely — and if it did, you really should avoid planting them again this year. Let’s face it — impatiens have been done to death. This is your chance to break free! Use this as an opportunity to plant something new that you haven’t tried before. Begonias, fuchsia, caladiums, coleus, salvia, oxalis — all are great, shade-loving alternatives with nice growth habits and there are so many others out there. Who knows, maybe this time next year you will have forgotten all about impatiens.
If you absolutely have to have them, however, and still want to give it a go, here’s what you should do: If you grew Impatiens last year, plant them in a different location. This disease is not only airborne, but the spores stay in the soil as well. If you planted them in containers, dispose of the dirt (not in your compost pile) and disinfect your container with a bleach/water mixture. If you do notice some of the mildew symptoms, immediately pull up the infected plant (roots and all), put it in a plastic bag, and get rid of it.(0) Comments
Enjoy this post? Share it with others.
Garden: The Lady In Red
The following is the fourth part of a column for Rural Intelligence that seeks to address basic issues facing the ever-inquisitive back and front-yard toiler, proffered by the people who know best, the fertile master gardeners from the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge. This week, we’re all ticked off about a certain lily-loving bug.
This attractive little bugger is the Lily Leaf Beetle. Native to Europe, it was first spotted in Boston in 1992 and has quickly spread to the rest of New England, all the way to southern New York.
Don’t let her good looks fool you. The Lily Leaf Beetle will defoliate and destroy a variety of lily (Lilium) species, (such as Asiatic, Oriental, Easter, Tiger and Turk’s Cap lilies) and right now is when they are coming out to party, mate and lay their eggs. (They are definitely not lady bugs! Lady bugs are actually very GOOD for your garden.) If you see them in your garden you need to take action.
Here’s what to do:
First of all, if you see these on a plant you are purchasing or if a frenemy is trying to give you one as a gift, politely decline. Same goes for you – don’t share plants that have the beetle or you could unintentionally spread the problem. The real damage from the Lily Leaf Beetle occurs in the larva stage after the eggs laid by adult beetles throughout the spring (right now) have hatched and come out hungry. Larvae of this beetle are beyond disgusting. They look like slugs with brownish bodies and black heads. If that weren’t repulsive enough, they secrete and carry their excrement on their backs to ward off predators. After they have fed for 16-24 days, larvae enter the soil to pupate. New adults emerge in 16-22 days and feed until fall when they head back into the soil and wait until spring to mate and start the process all over again.
If you do notice them in your home garden and have a concentrated planting (at left is an example of what can happen with them), the best first defense is to try and remove them by hand. First, place a white sheet of paper around your plant – the beetles are easily spooked and tend to fall off plants when touched. They almost always land on their backs, which are black, making them impossible to spot on the ground. Having a piece of paper there for them to land on makes them easy to spot. Monitor your plants every couple of days and remove any new beetles that appear. There’s hope for revival even at the state pictured here.
If you have a large planting and the problem is more wide-spread, you may want to consider a spray. You can use a pyerthroid insecticide or if you want to go a non-toxic, more earth friendly route, consider using a Neem spray and reapply every 4-5 days to get any eggs that may have hatched. You’ll want to continue this process through June to catch any late arrivals and prevent them from laying eggs.
When you do catch them, kill them. Put them in a jar or bucket of soapy water and that should do the trick.
Enjoy this post? Share it with others.
Garden: Mind Your Peony Ps And Qs
The following is the third part of a new column for Rural Intelligence that seeks to address basic issues facing the ever-inquisitive back and front-yard toiler, proffered by the people who know best, the fertile master gardeners from the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge. This week, we’re all abloom with the sage advice on a beloved perennial.
There is no denying that peonies (or Paeonia, the only genus in the family Paeoniceae,) are superstars of the early summer garden. Showy, fragrant, and a great cut flower, peonies, an herbaceous perennial, are very hardy and easy to grow in zones 3-8. Although relatively maintenance free, here are some helpful tips to help you grow the best peony on your block.
First of all, know this:
When peonies are at their peak and looking their very best, a punishing thunderstorm is going to roll through and ruin the show. Just accept it. It happens every single year and there is nothing you can do about it.
Even without a heavy rain, peonies can get top heavy and tend to droop over. You can give them a little help. Peonies enjoy being supported with a hoop-type support. Put out the support as soon as you see growth, and the leaves will cover the supporting structure in no time. If, however, your new plant is already two feet or higher, wait until next year. You don’t want to break your plant.
Thankfully, peonies have relatively few diseases. The most common one is botrytis. An excellent resource on the diseases of peonies can be found on the Penn State website.
Most likely, you are going to see ants on your peonies, maybe lots of them. Don’t worry about this one bit — it’s natural. Some think they even play a role in helping them flower and will disappear after the plant has done so. There’s no need to spray to get rid of them. They’ll disappear when the blooms open and will do nothing to hurt them (or you.)
Don’t be afraid to cut your peonies and bring them inside (especially if you know that thunderstorm is on the horizon!).
When you do cut blooms, leave at least two leaf nodes on the stem. Your plant needs its leaves to continue to produce food for the plant, so cut your vase display with short stems. After your blooms disappear, your peony plant will continue to please as a leafy bush. At the end of the growing season, cut your peony down to the ground, being sure not to cut the buds. Mulch heavily, and gently remove the mulch in the spring.
If you don’t already have peonies in your garden:
The best way to get this show is to purchase and plant a potted peony right now (spring.) Plant it in a well-drained area in full sun so that the soil level of the potted plant is level with the soil you are planting it in. A soil pH of 6 to 7, but no lower than 5.5 is ideal. Do not fertilize the first year. For that matter, peonies really do not require much fertilizing at all, and over-fertilizing will weaken the leaves and produce small blooms. Too much nitrogen may inhibit bloom growth and encourage more greenery. That said, no fertilizing is better than too much. When you dig your hole, you may add bone meal or compost or superphosphate to the hole, but cover this with soil before you put the plant in, as you may burn the roots otherwise. After the first year, peonies might like a light fertilizing, ¼ to ½ cup of 5-10-10 scratched lightly into the soil at the beginning of spring, and again halfway through the growing season. Do this at the drip line and don’t dig too deeply, as you don’t want to disturb the roots.
The best way to propagate peonies:
This is done by root division, which you do in October when the plant has begun to go dormant. You may cut through the plant while it is still in the ground, and either remove the whole plant and replant parts or just remove some parts. The best time to prepare your new site is in the spring. Dig a hole at least one foot deep or more and add organic matter to the soil. Add 1/4 to 1/2 cup of 10-10-10 per plant to the soil in the bottom of the bed. Do not add fertilizer to the soil that will touch the roots. Add soil back into hole and mark it so you can find it easily. When you are ready to plant, dig a foot-deep hole in your prepared soil area. Make the hole wide enough so the roots can spread out. Place your new plant with at least five eyes so that the eyes are no lower than two inches below the soil level. Planting them too deeply will inhibit blooms next year. If you don’t mind how it looks, you can place your supports in the ground at the fall planting time. It may take up to three years for your new plant to establish and bloom, but it will be well worth the wait.
An excellent resource on peonies this author found is here.
Enjoy this post? Share it with others.
Garden: The Dirt On Soil
The following is the second part of a new column for Rural Intelligence, a weekly Q&A that seeks to address basic issues facing the ever-inquisitive back and front-yard toiler. Both questions and answers are provided by the people who know best, the fertile master gardeners from the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge. This week, should you have further queries about the subject at hand, you can check the websites provided at the bottom of the article.
Should I have my soil tested?
Yes, yes and YES! For almost all of the plant health questions that we receive, the first thing that we do is to ask whether or not you have had your soil tested because, more often than not, poor or wrong soil conditions are usually the issue.
Your soil has a lot going on down there. It’s a combination of sand, silt (rock), clay particles, organic matter (poop and dead stuff), air, and water. The decaying organic matter is food for all of the creatures that live in healthy soil: earthworms, insects, beneficial nematodes, bacteria and other microorganisms. If you took just one quarter of a teaspoon of soil, you would find about a BILLION microorganisms. All of those elements and creatures create a balance that is critical to your plant growth.
One of the most important conditions that affects the quality of plant growth is ph; the measure of soil acidity or alkalinity. The soil ph impacts the release of minerals into the soil. When the ph is incorrect for the plant growing there, the minerals needed for plant growth are not released to the plant even if all of the nutrients are present. It’s like having a safety deposit box at the bank filled with gold but no key to open it. We measure ph on a scale of 1-14 where 7 is neutral. Below 7 and your soil is acidic, above 7 and your soil is alkaline.
When should I have my soil tested?
If you can, test your soil BEFORE you put in that new flower bed or fencerow of trees. Most soils will probably need amending and that can take a lot of time if you are relying on those nutrients to move through the soil from the top down. If you can mix in those amendments to the top 6-8 inches of the soil before planting, you can speed up the process.
It’s best to have your soil tested every 2-3 years. Sample more frequently if you are monitoring your fertility levels or growing crops or plants that are known to use a lot of resources.
How to take a soil sample:
1. First, determine the area where you want to plant. Find a small spot in that area and remove any turf, debris, mulch, residue, etc. that may be covering the soil.
2. Take your trowel and make a cone-shaped hole that is 6-8 inches deep.
3. Now, remove a thin layer from the side of the hole with your trowel, a “slice” of soil if you will, and put it in a container.
4. Repeat this step ten times. That’s right, ten times and no cheating! It is important to get a good sampling of soil throughout your planting site for an accurate reading. For larger areas you may even want to do more.
5. Once you have all of your “slices,” go ahead and mix them up really well, breaking up large clumps.
6. Now spread the mixture out on a paper towel and let that air dry overnight.
7. Once dry, take a ½ cup of the soil and put it in a plastic bag. Label the bag with your name, contact info, site location, and what you intend on growing at the site.
Congratulations! You have got yourself one good soil sample that is ready for testing.
Where to get your soil sample tested:
There are lots of different places you can have your soil sampled. Most places charge just a small fee and can do sampling rather quickly.
• The Master Gardeners perform soil testing for ph levels here at the Berkshire Botanical Garden every Monday from 9 a.m. to noon for just $1. Bring a sample with your name, telephone number, and what you wish to grow at the site.
• The Farmer’s Market at the Berkshire Mall in Lanesborough also has soil testing on the following dates from 9 a.m. to noon: May 11 and 18, June 15, July 13, August 17, and September 7 and 14.
• In Massachusetts, mail your soil sample to UMASS for a complete soil analysis.
• In Connecticut, visit the UCONN website.
• In New York, visit the Cornell website.
• You may also want to contact your local municipality to see if they provide soil testing. Oftentimes, towns or counties will have free testing for residents or will do it locally.
Enjoy this post? Share it with others.
Garden: Thank You, Very Mulch
The following is the first part of a new column for Rural Intelligence that seeks to answer basic questions for the ever-inquisitive back and front yard toiler, and is provided by the people who know best, the master gardeners at the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge. The subject this week is that (sometimes overlooked) garden staple, mulch, preferably from sustainable sources, which are all around us and need hardly be costly to buy.
What’s the deal with mulch — do I really have to apply it to my garden? If so what kind? When? How much?
Well, you don’t have to apply mulch to your garden. But then again, you don’t have to shower every day either, which doesn’t mean that it’s not a good idea to do so. The truth is that just about every kind of garden likes a nice layer of mulch. And for good reason. There are a lot of benefits, and although it might seem like a lot of work and expense up front, in the long run it will end up saving you time and money. Here’s how:
Mulch protects your soil.
When it comes to your garden, it is all about the soil. Having good soil quality in your garden is critical and good soil is worth protecting. That’s where mulch comes in. It protects your soil from erosion and helps prevent compaction that comes with garden equipment and foot traffic from both people and animals. When soil gets compacted, it limits the amount of large pore space that allows for both oxygen and water to move into and through the soil. Low oxygen levels are a significant factor in reducing plant growth that most people aren’t even aware of. Mulch provides a layer of “cushion” that reduces the impact of traffic around your plants.
Mulch reduces moisture loss and protects from high temperatures.
We all know how important water is to a garden. Keeping moisture in the soil is just as important as getting water there in the first place. Mulch prevents sunlight from reaching the surface of your soil — that keeps the temperature down, which in turn, reduces the rate at which the water evaporates keeping that moisture where it belongs; near the surface of the soil where plant roots like to grow — not bake in the sun.
Mulch keeps away weeds and adds some “wow.”
This one’s a real crowd-pleaser. Keeping light off the soil surface not only reduces the rate of water evaporation, it also prevents weeds from germinating. Less weeds not only mean less work for you, it also indicates that the plants you do want growing in your garden are not competing with weeds for soil nutrients and water. Plus, mulch just looks nice!
Different kinds of mulch
You don’t necessarily need to run to the hardware store and spend a lot of moolah on mulch as many organic materials are good mulch options: straw, shredded/chopped leaves, and pine needles are some examples. Here at the BBG, we use a lot of pine needles (that come from the trees at Tanglewood.)
Crushed stone or gravel is good for use around beds, walkways, steps, rock gardens, and foundations. To prevent the stones from migrating down into the soil, use an underlay of synthetic fiber (weed cloth) or black plastic mulch. Be aware that limestone chips raise the PH of soil and should not be used around acid-loving plants. Black plastic mulch is also a good, stand alone mulch option for vegetable gardens and crops.
As for the choices of mulch you find at your local nursery or hardware store, these are usually shredded bark and wood mulches. Light or dark choices make no real difference, however we try to avoid mulches that contain dyes and chemicals as a personal preference (think red mulch.) You may also want to inquire where the mulch you are purchasing came from. One of the most popular types of wood mulch is Cypress, which has resulted in the clear-cutting and destruction of precious wetlands in Florida and Louisiana. With all of the mulch options available, there is no need to sacrifice the beauty of one landscape for another!
How to apply mulch.
Apply mulch in about a 3” layer after the soil has warmed and fertilizer has been applied (around here, plan on mulching near Memorial Day). Be sure to not bury any plants; mulch needs to be 3”-4” away from the plant crown to prevent rot and disease. (This includes tree trunks!) Buy good quality mulch to avoid potential problems such as sour mulch or artillery fungus. “Souring” occurs when hardwood bark mulch is allowed to stand in big piles for long periods and begins to compost without an adequate air supply, resulting in extreme acidity that can burn your plants.
You may want to check with your local municipality as they will often have “chip” piles or municipal mulch that you can use for free. If you have large spaces that need mulching, it may also make sense to research having mulch delivered by the cubic yard as it is often cheaper and easier than buying it by the bag. Contact your local garden center or building supply shop for details and pricing.
Do you have a gardening question that you need answered? Call the Master Gardener’s hotline at the Berkshire Botanical Garden at (413) 298-5355.(0) Comments
Enjoy this post? Share it with others.
Margaret Roach Delivers The Backyard Parables
Sequestered on a hillside in Copake, New York, Margaret Roach — former editorial director of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia and, before that, longtime staffer on the New York Times and Newsday — tends her land as well as her website, A Way to Garden, which many, from neophyte to expert, proclaim to be the best of the crop of garden blogs. She also has three books under her belt, the latest of which, The Backyard Parables: Lessons on Gardening, and Life, was just released by Grand Central Publishing. Faithful followers of Roach’s writing — and they are legion — will be familiar with her engaging style, which blends life stories, practical gardening tips, and a dash of spirituality — or, as Roach calls it, “horticultural how-to and woo-woo.” RI’s Bess Hochstein caught up with Roach to ask her about her new book, her garden, and her life.
Bess Hochstein: On the surface, The Backyard Parables could be described as a year-long diary of your life in your garden, with extensive sidebars full of gardening tips. It also includes elements of memoir: a spattering of stories from your youth and your family, particularly your grandmother. How did you strike upon this fusion of garden book and memoir? Was this structure your intention from the start or did it evolve into this form as you wrote?
Margaret Roach: I think of the book as a memoir, with some how-to sidebars. (I think it’s about 75-25 percent that.) This is the way I have always written — “how-to and ‘woo-woo’ ” as I call it, with the practical and the philosophical/personal blended.
My experience in the garden has infused my first-person writing since the start. In the late 1980s, when I was garden editor for Newsday newspaper, one of my two columns each week was how-to, and the other was more an essay. In my first garden book (A Way to Garden, 1998), which was mostly how-to — so 80-20 the other way from The Backyard Parables — each section opened with an essay from my life experience that my relationship to the garden informed or helped me understand.
It’s frankly hard at this point for me to write about either “me” or “it” as we seem to have evolved into one organism, a Jerry Maguire “you complete me” kind of two-part harmony, you know?
BH: The Backyard Parables follows the year through the four seasons, divided into four corresponding chapters: Water (winter); Earth (spring); Fire (summer); and Wind (autumn). Yet in a way, it also feels like a bit of time travel, both because of the inclusion of stories from your past and the way the seasons slip away – you start Water in an ice storm in the thick of winter, and suddenly, without the reader noticing the passage of time, we’re at the start of spring. It reads very close to the way we experience the seasons. Did you have that sense of the flow of time as you wrote the book?
MR: The structure of The Backyard Parables — the elemental chapter structure — came to me as I studied up on what parables really were, and saw how many of them in different traditions (from Confucianism to the Talmud or Koran or Upanishads and on and on) had taken nature as their cue, their inspiration. And when I realized that I could assign each element a season (by freezing Water and matching it with Winter; by making Air into Wind and assigning it to Fall…) — well, I got very excited.
Our entire experience on earth is elemental, isn’t it? We modern-day souls lose sight of our connection to the food chain we’re just one part of, and try to fly in the face of it, but really, who’s in charge? Not us.
Being a gardener for 30-ish years has completely changed my relationship to time — I’m more agrarian in my orientation, always aware of the day-length, whether it’s “time” to do a particular thing, how long it is until something else will be ready or needs doing. I get up in the dark, like my supper at about 5 — as if I might then need to go out and milk the cows or something, to finish up the last chores.
BH: I also had the sense of wandering in the book, your tangents taking the narrative in unexpected directions, as if meandering through a garden path, encountering little surprises along the way.
MR: Hopefully this is not because the story is a maze one gets lost in as much as the fact that you are being guided by my insatiable curiosity that seizes me (and hopefully the reader along with me) every time I step outdoors.
I mean, I get my boots and gloves and ear muffs and goggles to go out to mow, but I don’t even get to the barn to get the machine before I’ve discovered a new-to-me caterpillar, and some odd growth on a leaf that’s strangely beautiful but probably a gall, a sign that some insect or fungi has interacted with it in an unfortunate manner. Always something to explore, to linger over.
I ricochet, because I am open to distraction and nothing is more distracting than nature’s many intricate offerings.
BH: The year you track in this book was 2011, one of the more freakish-weather years in our region, what with Hurricane Irene punctuating the end of summer, swiftly followed by the surprise late-October snowfall. Were you expecting, or hoping for, a more normal year, weather-wise?
MR: Because the book was basically written as the year unfolded, I did not have the liberty — like a novelist might — of predicting the outcome of the plot. At first when it was one “hundred-year” event after another, I thought: Stop it! Just stop it! But then, of course, I came to see it the way a director might see an actor’s improvisation that improved the script, you know? I had a lot to work with, and all of it — every costly but dramatic scene — underscored the message (again) that we are not in control. Gardening is not outdoor decorating!
BH: Throughout the book there’s a pitched battle between your desire to control the land and the need to let go, your efforts toward shaping the garden and nature’s way of obstructing, thwarting, or even seeming to scoff at those efforts. Two years later, after the introspective exercise of this book, where are you in this tug of war?
MR: I say in the book that the only thing I know for sure after 30 years of gardening: Things will die. Gardening celebrates the ephemeral; the Japanese more than anyone understand this, and work with — not against — it in their gardening.
BH: How much of your land is given to the vegetable garden? What do you do to integrate it into your garden design?
MR: I grow a lot of food, but in two smallish areas of raised beds, maybe a total of 1,200 square feet in my 2.3 acres. My place is very hilly and there are lots of big old trees, so spots in flat sunshine are scarce. If I were planning today, I would not have vegetables where they are — visually, I mean — but so be it; this is the only flat somewhat sunny space I have, and I like the pickings.
BH: Your thirst for knowledge seems as unquenchable as your lust for plants. You dip into philosophy, religion, geology, biology, chemistry, ornithology, mycology, entomology, etymology, lexicography, and other fields, in a masterful yet understandable, engaging manner. If there’s something you don’t know, you track down the information you want. Late in the book, you drop the fact that you dropped out of college. Have you always been a self-motivated/self-directed learner?
MR: Always. I am not great being told what to do or when to do it, being force-fed. I seem to learn differently from the way it was dictated in the textbooks and lecture halls of my school days. I recently went to a day of classes at my niece’s high school, Emma Willard in Troy, NY, and they sit in circles and learn through conversation — not being lectured at solely. I think I would have done better if I were being schooled today.
BH: It’s not a stretch to call your writing style poetic, and you cite a lot of poets: Dickinson, Coleridge, Rilke, Frost… Have you studied poetry, or written any? Or are you just an avid reader of poetry? Do you see a relationship between gardening and poetry?
MR: I dropped out of college several times, and never finished. The only course that I remember learning anything from was “Modern British and American Poetry” at NYU. My previous book was named for a line from Yeats (And I Shall Have Some Peace There, 2011).
I have never written any poetry, and cannot imagine how people do it, but am glad for their skill and devotion to the craft. As for a relationship between gardening and poetry, well, I see a relationship between nature (and gardening is just my window in to nature) and everything.
BH: You describe your garden as you would your lover, talking about your former long-distance relationship (when you still lived in NYC), and even calling it your life partner at one point. Since moving to Copake full time in 2007, you say you have only spent one night away from your home. Is that still true? Is the garden that demanding of your time or attention?
MR: We are now at a whopping two nights away in five years. I think I have to be away one night in 2013. Damn!
It’s not that the garden needs me to be here 24/7/365; it’s that I need to be here in the garden. I lived too many years as a weekender, an absentee. No more.
BH: Your garden design advice is to plant for your view from the places you find yourself most often inside the house: your bedroom window or the vantage from your favorite chair or your desk, because when you’re outside you find yourself consumed with all the work that needs to be done in the garden, thus unable to relax and enjoy the view. As a none-too-ambitious (or lazy) gardener, I find that advice most suitable for only the most motivated (or neurotic) of gardeners. When it’s warm outside, that’s where I want to be. What impact would that preference have on your design suggestions?
MR: Of course I don’t want people to make plantings that look like hell from outside, when they are sitting in a lawn chair or on the deck viewing them. But I want them to remember — whether keen gardeners or not — that we live a lot inside our houses, and to be sure to place our key plantings so that they can be appreciated from inside as well as out. Being conscious of key axes is the main thing that will connect in-to-out, and enhance the view from wherever you are, helping relate and anchor the garden to the house and the house into the garden.
BH: There’s a somber current running through the book, which surprised me, especially given your enthusiasm and passion about gardening. Themes of aging, entropy, drift, and mortality arise again and again. Like shrubs, you write, We reach our full promise only to face decline. Do you think the book would have had a more chipper tone had you written it in spring rather than in winter?
MR: I say in the book that the story of a year in the garden would have been different in my “rising-sap” or newlywed phase when I began gardening. But this wisdom — this carpe diem awareness, the falling away of the ignorance (arrogance?) of youth when we feel immortal and like a million years lie ahead of us — is not such a bad thing.
In fact if there were one thing I’d credit the garden with over all its other blessings, I’d say it was its invocation not to waste time.
I did write chunks of the book in spring and summer, actually; I don’t think my tone is Seasonal Affective Disorder so much as just that that message — our impermanence, so make hay while the sun shines, baby — is so precious.
MR: Yes, definitely, and a precious friend.
BH: Marco told you “Never stop wanting plants.” But then, later in the book, you recount a conversation with a friend who says, “Remember wanting absolutely everything – growing everything that came along,” and you laugh with relief and turn back to that idea of letting go.
Well, isn’t everything a set of conflicting cravings, or opposing forces? I know I must simplify my garden to make it more manageable and affordable — but then the new crop of catalogs arrive! The tugs-of-war within us are many.
BH: In the afterword, having written the book through a winter during which the ground never froze, you hint at climate change. Were you tentative about sermonizing on the subject?
MR: It’s not an environmental book, and most of all there are far more expert voices than I on that subject. But as a gardener I am keenly aware of important changes, as I have been for years now; things are simply not the same. So I just wanted to speak only from my expertise as merely that: gardener.
BH: How do you find the time to tend your garden, tend your websites, write books, and read as much as it’s obvious you do?
MR: It helps to be Type AAA. I work from about 5 a.m. onward, typically seven days a week, but it never feels like work because I am always learning and exploring. This is what I want to do with my life now — garden, write online and off, look out the window — and so I have shaped my days and weeks and months to accommodate these desires.
The Backyard Parables:
Lessons on Gardening, and Life
Talk and book signing with author Margaret Roach
Sunday, Jan. 20 @ 2 p.m.
26 Main Street
Interview by Bess Hochstein; photos of Margaret Roach by Erica Berger; all other photos by Margaret Roach.(0) Comments
Enjoy this post? Share it with others.
Vegetable Garden: The Pesto Variations—Beyond Basil
A recent trek to the compost pile forced me to reckon with the state of affairs in my vegetable garden, particularly the state of green affairs. The basil is bushy and much of it is flowering; the kale is as high as my waist and deep green. It is time to whip out the Cuisinart and buy a nice big jug of olive oil (extra virgin, of course). There is pesto to be made.
Most of us think of pesto as strictly a basil-based dish; simply whir your emerald leaves in the food processor with olive oil, garlic, Parmesan cheese, pine nuts, and presto: pesto! But once I stumbled upon a recipe for mint pesto (which makes perfect sense, in that basil is a member of the mint, or mentha, family, Lamiaceae, along with rosemary, sage, oregano, and other aromatic herbs), I realized that pesto has a broader definition, allowing for more flexibility in ingredients and flavors than we allow ourselves. The literal meaning of pesto is to pound or to crush; it’s related to the word “pestle,” as in “mortar and… ” Basically, just about any combination of ingredients you can grind into a paste can be a form of pesto. What we commonly know as pesto, made with basil, is pesto Genovese, originating in Genoa, Italy. It migrated to Provence, losing the cheese along the way, and became pistou.
There are several variations on the traditional basil theme that seems to have followed the delectable sauce from its starting point in the Mediterranean. Lemon basil adds a nice zest while Holy basil evokes a flavor more representative of a traditional Thai dish than a Genovese staple. While the commonly-used pine nuts are both smooth and nutty, they can be a bit pricey. Walnuts, especially toasted, are a perfectly acceptable substitute and blend nicely with the olive oil. Don’t be afraid to add a bit of salt or a squeeze of lemon in your pesto experiments.
The most difficult step in pesto adventuring is leaving the basil behind. Pesto does not require basil; it only calls for a mortar and pestle (or, thank heaven for modern conveniences, a food processor) and a generous amount of olive oil. A friend recommends following the typical pesto recipe, but using parsley instead of basil, which she finds too strong. Others have suggested kale—both raw and lightly steamed—arugula, or spinach. My own mint variation includes orange zest, chocolate mint, and almonds. Or try cilantro pesto, using almonds, walnuts, or pumpkin seeds for a seasonal twist, plus a bit of jalapeño pepper. Soak raw pumpkin seeds for at least 15 minutes and grind them up with parsley, ginger, tamari (soy sauce), lemon juice, olive oil, and, again, a bit of jalapeño for an irresistible variation. Bear in mind that pesto need not be green; think of pestos based on sun-dried tomatoes or roasted red peppers (often referred to as romesco, pesto’s red cousin of Spanish origin).
All forms of pesto are versatile and forgiving; give yourself the freedom to experiment and find the proportions and combination of ingredients that produce the flavor and consistency of pesto that appeals to your palate. The uses of pesto are as infinite as its variations. Beyond the typical pasta sauce, pesto can top crostini (with or without a slice of tomato and/or mozzarella), add a dollop of flavor to soup, be embedded in lasagna, bring zing to a sandwich, or serve as a tasty dip for crudite.
If you have a vegetable garden, you’re already well aware that frost warnings are on the horizon. It’s time to take stock of what to harvest. Begin with the basil, which can’t tolerate the cold and may already be getting bitter. Give yourself more time than you think you need; there’s nothing worse than harvesting a bushel of basil and watching it wilt as you while away the hours plucking leaves and putting them through the rinse cycle before they even hit the food processor bowl. If you’re growing a lot of basil, try to harvest it in batches rather than all at once. And remember that, with pesto Genovese, a little goes a long way.
Plan to freeze a pesto base—simply basil and olive oil, and a bit of salt—and add the other ingredients when you’re ready for a taste of summer in the chill of winter. One popular technique is to freeze this base in ice cube trays, then transfer the cubes to a freezer-safe sandwich bag; when you’re ready to recall your garden’s summer splendor in a meal, defrost only the amount of cubes you’ll use and whir in the garlic, nuts, and cheese.
Other pesto candidates that may be in your garden—kale, parsley, arugula—can better tolerate the cold. Regardless, it’s a great time of year to begin experimenting with pesto variations. The results may have an impact on your garden planning for next year. And on your dinner table for tonight.—Nichole Dupont(0) Comments
Enjoy this post? Share it with others.
Garden View: Sunflowers, Stalwart Sentinels of Summer’s End
Liza Gyllenhaal is the author of the novels Local Knowledge, So Near, and the forthcoming A Place for Us, all set in the Rural Intelligence region. She and her husband divide their time between Manhattan and West Stockbridge, MA where she writes — and putters around in her garden. We’re pleased to share her occasional musings on gardening and other topics with RI readers.
There is something innately happy about a sunflower. It’s the smiley face of the annual kingdom. This is the time of year, just as the sun begins to cut back its regular working hours, that you see their big, bright, round faces leaning over fences and dotting backyard gardens across our region. If the chrome yellow of forsythia and daffodils presage the start of our all-too-short growing season, the golden yellow of sunflowers foreshadows its end. They’re one of summer’s final gifts — not just riotously pretty in centerpieces but seriously delicious and nutritional when harvested for their seeds.
I started to grow sunflowers on a whim. Several years ago one April, I was picking out my vegetable seeds at Ward’s Nursery when I noticed a packet of Renee’s “Edible Snack Seed Sunflowers” that was advertised as having “big flower faces and golden petals that mature into heavy heads of large, delicious, plump seed kernels.” It cost $2.29. How could I resist? I planted them along the split-rail fence inside our vegetable garden and, just as promised, by the end of August the plants had shot up seven feet high, with heads the size of dinner plates packed with beautiful glossy black seeds. Then, something odd began to happen. The seeds started to disappear! They seemed to be popping out of the tightly-packed flower centers like loose buttons and ending up as shelled husks strewn across the vegetables beds.
It didn’t take long to realize that the birds were dive-bombing down and devouring them. So I cut off the flower heads and set them out around the garden like so many snack bowls and let the birds feast away on the seeds to their hearts’ content. Every year since, I’ve grown them for the decorative value they add to the vegetable garden and the pleasure of watching them shoot up —sometimes as much as six inches in a single week — like teenagers in a growth spurt. Then, at summer’s end, I cut them down and offer the seeds to the birds who have serenaded us all summer and will soon be gone. Bees and butterflies also love sunflowers, so growing them enhances not just the beauty but the health of your garden.
Not, I hope, that you’ll ever need to use them for this purpose, but sunflowers can also help extract toxic elements from the soil. Sunflowers were seeded at Chernobyl and, more recently, millions of them were planted at the Fukushima Daaichi nuclear site to help soak up nuclear radiation.
Despite what I thought to be true most of my life, I learned recently that the faces of mature sunflowers don’t actually track the movement of the sun across the sky (known as heliotropism). This phenomenon occurs only during the early bud stage, before the actual heads form, and by the end of that phase the plants have all turned eastward —and stay there. Whether growing in Provence or South Dakota, rows and rows of mature sunflowers are always facing east. There’s nothing quite as comforting as working in the garden early in the morning at the tag end of summer, surrounded by my tall, strong, stalwart honor guard of sunflowers, their faces uniformly tilted upward to greet the coming day.
Here’s a lovely poem by Mary Oliver (who obviously didn’t get the memo on heliotropism):
Come with me
into the field of sunflowers.
Their faces are burnished disks,
their dry spines
creak like ship masts,
their green leaves,
so heavy and many,
fill all day with the sticky
sugars of the sun.
Come with me
to visit the sunflowers,
they are shy
but want to be friends;
they have wonderful stories
of when they were young -
the important weather,
the wandering crows.
Don’t be afraid
to ask them questions!
Their bright faces,
which follow the sun,
will listen, and all
those rows of seeds -
each one a new life!
hope for a deeper acquaintance;
each of them, though it stands
in a crowd of many,
like a separate universe,
is lonely, the long work
of turning their lives
into a celebration
is not easy. Come
and let us talk with those modest faces,
the simple garments of leaves,
the coarse roots in the earth
so uprightly burning.
Tips for growing sunflowers
• Not surprisingly, they need a lot of sun — at least six to eight hours a day, and even more if possible.
• They thrive on a big bed and breakfast. Give them plenty of room to grow (space seeds about two feet a part) and lots of compost and supplements. Warning: they do tend to suck nutrients (as well as toxins) out of the soil, so be careful what you plant near them.
• They need support. That’s why I situate mine along the split-rail fence and at the end of the season tie them to the fencing to keep them from toppling over in the wind and rain.
• Keep their heads covered. If you want to harvest the seeds for yourself, put a paper bag over the flower heads once they have matured or the birds will make away with your bounty.
• You can purchase seeds at every good garden center. For an excellent selection and more helpful growing information, check out the ever-reliable Renee’s Garden Seeds. —Liza Gyllenhaal(0) Comments