Apricot_Impression_T_440.jpg"} Carey Malone, The Wandering Eye blogger, makes it his business to educate his peers on the new technology. | Rural Intelligence Brian Cruey of the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, MA, recounts his bear-and-the-bees situation. | Rural Intelligence Bear_on_Gamecam_440.jpg"} Brian Cruey of the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, MA, gives a primer on how to take great garden photos. | Rural Intelligence The Wandering Eye Jumps On The Valley Harvest Bandwagon | Rural Intelligence Touch It And Take It Home: Treasures From The Museum Gift Shop | Rural Intelligence Brian Cruey of the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, MA writes about the new exhibit, | Rural Intelligence The Garden Conservancy's | Rural Intelligence Brian Cruey of the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, MA suggests an easy way to edge your garden. | Rural Intelligence The Country Living Fair: Highly Curated, Extremely Shoppable | Rural Intelligence Mary Randolph 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Peonies, The Sequel

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.

Last time I checked in, I was going on and on about peonies. If you were bored by that article, I’ve got some bad news: I need to talk more about peonies. Tree peonies, to be exact. Never heard of them? Get ready to have your mind blown.

Unlike herbaceous peonies (whose leaves and stems die down at the end of the growing season to the soil level), tree peonies don’t die back every year. Instead, they grow as a woody shrub. Just like other woody shrubs, the branches of tree peonies don’t get cut back at the end of the season and last through the winter. Most tree peonies will bloom in early to mid May, a bit earlier than their herbaceous cousins, which for the most part, get started in early June. 

Tree peonies get a bad reputation; many people label them “hard to grow.” In reality, they are really just “slow to grow” and quite hardy, growing under similar conditions to that of herbaceous peonies: neutral, organic rich soil that is well drained and located in a sunny to partly sunny area of the yard. Given time and the right conditions, most will grow to a height of four feet or higher, with equal or greater width. Though their stems are made to last the cold winter months, that doesn’t mean that they are safe from what the snow brings — broken limbs or damage caused by voles. It’s a good idea to wrap the trees in burlap before the snow falls to give them an added layer of protection.

What tree peonies lack in their ability to grow quickly, they more than make up for in their annual flower show. Sure, herbaceous peonies are impressive enough and already are one of the most beautiful blooms in the garden. But tree peonies just have a little more oomph to them. They are peonies on steroids, with huge blooms and lots of them. Mature plants can have over a hundred flowers on them with blooms that can reach diameters of 12 inches and have a depth of 4 to 5 inches. If that isn’t enough, their fragrant scent will fill the air when mature plants are in full bloom and their perfume can rival that of any rose.

Not convinced? Fortunately for us folks living in the RI region, we have two incredible resources when it comes to tree peonies. For the perfect example of how tree peonies can perform in the landscape, be sure to check out Naumkeag in Stockbridge. Naumkeag (a property under the stewardship of the The Trustees of Reservations and open to the public daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.) is not only an historic home and museum, but a spectacular garden in the process of receiving a multi-million-dollar restoration. Though the gardens surrounding the home are probably best known for their iconic “Blue Steps” set into the hillside, they also boast a sprawling terrace filled with nothing but mature tree peonies, all covered in blooms this time of year. I never miss this garden “performance” and you shouldn’t either.

Cricket Hill Gardens in Thomaston, CT are nothing short of experts on all things peony. Not only do they specialize in growing tree peonies (and herbaceous peonies as well) but they also sell and propagate them. They have a peony festival that goes from now through June 21 that’s worth the visit. If you can’t get there, they have an online shop and catalog and are always happy to help via phone.

If you do decide to purchase a tree peony, be ready for some sticker shock. Most tree peonies start in the $80 range and go up from there.  But trust me, it’s well worth the investment and you’ll probably grow to love this plant more than any other in the garden.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 05/26/15 at 08:28 PM • Permalink

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Garden: Mind Your Peony Ps And Qs

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.

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.

fernFirst 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.)

june borderDon’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.

peonies pottedIf 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.

peonies 3The 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.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 05/12/15 at 01:39 PM • Permalink

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At 15 Years, Trade Secrets Is A Mix Of The Old And The New

By Paige Darrah

For Martha Stewart and carloads of other less famous gardeners, May means one thing: Trade Secrets Rare Plant and Garden Antique Show in Sharon, CT.  If you’re one of them — or want to see what all the buzz is about — grab your Barbour jacket and join the straw-hatted crowd at the two-day garden party Flower magazine has dubbed “the Northeast’s garden event of the year.” 

Trade Secrets began 15 years ago with 35 vendors in interior designer Bunny Williams’ backyard. Its mission was to help raise money for Women’s Support Services (WSS), an organization that’s been providing emergency shelter, a 24-hour hotline and counseling to domestic violence victims in greater northwest Connecticut since 1981.

“Trade Secrets provides the necessary funding for our support and community education programs,” says Lori Rivenburgh, executive director of WSS. “We work very closely with the local police and state troopers, which means we’re able to provide immediate support to domestic abuse victims.” Trade Secrets netted $230,000 in 2014, which represents one-third of the WSS operating budget. “I can’t thank all the volunteers and supporters enough for all that they have done for the past 15 years,” she says.

The event — which is run by those invaluable volunteers — has expanded to include 61 carefully curated vendors (eight of whom will be making their TS debut) who are some of the nation’s best-known small nurseries and specialized growers. But it’s more than the greenery you go for:  this is where you source high-end outdoor furniture, statuary, wrought iron fencing and other garden accoutrements you won’t find at those big box stores.

Vertical garden from MyHouseLeeks.

Among the eclectic new vendors peddling their wares this year is sculptor Peter Busby of Cornwall, Ct., whose work has been commissioned everywhere from the Dallas Zoo, to Alaska’s State Council on the Arts, to nearby Hotchkiss. He’ll be selling his antiquity-inspired vase sculptures [above], which are a weave of steel rods. Because you can see through them, they don’t overwhelm the environment they’re in, says the artist.

Low-maintenance gardeners should swing by the booth claimed by MyHouseLeeks, which will be filled with hardy alpine succulent plants. MyHouseLeeks will introduce its specialty birdhouses, the roofs and entrances of which are carpeted with hardy alpine succulents.

Day Two of Trade Secrets is devoted to exploring four of the most alluringly private gardens in the RI region, and this year’s self-guided tour features a mix of the new and the familiar. On the itinerary for the first time is the spring garden at Twin Maples in Salisbury, and the clever, seductively understated garden at Rockwood Farm in Cornwall. Returning this year are the “deliciously odd” garden of renowned designer and antique dealer, Michael Trapp and, of course, the Falls Village garden of Trade Secrets’ founder, Bunny Williams. The designer invites attendees to tour her aviary that’s stocked with unusual chickens and fantail doves, Adirondack-style pool house, vegetable gardens, greenhouse, conservatory and apple orchard.

Sam Spano of Copper Fields Design & Studio.

The $125 ‘Early Buying’ tickets will include breakfast and a two-hour leg up on the gardeners who buy the $40 regular admission. For the tenth year in a row, the event will be held on the Sharon/Salisbury border at Elaine LaRoche’s vast, sunflower-filled Lion Rock Farm.  The event ends at 3 p.m. and all proceeds from ticket sales go to WSS.

Trade Secrets at Lion Rock Farm – Saturday, May 16th
Early Buying: 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., $125
Regular Buying: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., $40

Trade Secrets Garden Tours – Sunday, May 17th
Gardens are open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., $70 ($60 if purchased in advance)

For more information or to purchase tickets, call (860) 364-1080 or visit the website.

Nearby restaurants for lunch:
Country Bistro, Salisbury
Falls Village Inn, Falls Village
Harney Tea Salon, Millerton
Oakhurst Diner, Millerton
Toymakers Cafe, Falls Village
The Woodland, Lakeville


Related Posts:
Trade Secrets: It’s A Good Thing For Gardeners And WSS, May 18, 2014
Trade Secrets: New Vendors Join The Perennial, May 5, 2014
Trade Secrets: The Ultimate Destination for Plants and Antiques, May 4, 2013
Trade Secrets: A Lollapalooza of Antiques and Gardens, May 15, 2012

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Posted by Lisa Green on 05/05/15 at 05:08 PM • Permalink

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Spring’s Garden Maintenance Is Part Work, Part Pleasure

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 past weekend was the first I had at home where I had no snow, no guests and no excuses to avoid the chores that have been waiting for me outside. It was so beautiful out, I didn’t mind one bit getting outdoors and seeing what the retreating glacier known as winter 2015 had left me. Those discoveries included one missing shovel, a lawn crisscrossed with vole tunnels and more fallen tree limbs than I could count. My hands are blistered and random muscles I forgot about are sore from all of the raking, chain sawing, pruning and hauling I got done. By eight o’clock Sunday night both my dogs and I were passed out on the couch exhausted from a day of being outside and spending some time in the sun. It felt great.

This is the time of year for maintenance. It’s easy to want to jump right into planting, but your garden beds are somewhat fragile at the moment and need to be approached with caution. Bulbs and perennials are just starting to poke up through the soil, which is loose, wet and easy to compact. It’s hard to know what’s coming up where, and stepping in the wrong place could lead to unnecessary plant damage. We’re also not out of the woods just yet (this time last year we got eight inches of snow) so don’t be fooled into thinking you can start planting annuals, vegetables and herbs by a random 70-degree, sunny day. It’s best to wait until mid May (at the earliest) to confidently put out plants without fear of frost.

Instead, use this time to sharpen your pruners, change your lawnmower blades, check the oil and filters in all of your equipment and replace tools that are broken or missing. Take an inventory of your fertilizers and seeds, and plan what you are going to grow this year. Use one of the inevitably rainy days of April to take a trip to the hardware store or garden center to stock up on supplies so that you can hit the ground running.

Of course, there’s much to be done in the garden itself. I never cut back things like sedum, grasses, black-eyed Susans or astilbe in the fall because I like the interesting texture it adds to the landscape through the winter, so that tops my to-do list in the spring. I also take this time to prune back plants like hydrangea, nine bark and my fruit trees. Again, if you are working in a garden bed, be careful where you step!

The minute I am able, I start taking my late afternoon, cocktail hour walk around the garden. This time of year there is still plenty to see. Yes, it is subtle, but it’s arguably more exciting because the changes are so gratifying. Hellebores are starting to come up and bloom, as are daffodils, tulips and all of the minor bulbs like chionodoxa and gallanthus. Trees like Cornus mas are just starting to pop and, even if they aren’t blooming just yet, the flower and leaf buds on almost every other tree are starting to swell with promise.

While you’re walking the garden looking for signs of life, also keep an eye out for signs of damage. As I mentioned, I had a crazy amount of downed branches this year that not only affected the trees that they fell from, but the plants that they landed on. The quicker you can alleviate the stress on any plant the better, so be mindful to look for things that are amiss. While you’re at it, check your house and outbuildings for any structural damage that may have occurred throughout the winter, like missing shingles, wood rot or gutter damage. This time of year I always notice something I missed the first, second and third time around, so better make that cocktail a double.

Whatever you do – don’t get stressed out! Spring can be overwhelming at times when you think about all of the work that needs to get done, but don’t worry – like all things in the garden, it’s about patience. This comes from someone who notoriously bites off more than he can chew and always has projects that he didn’t finish or even start. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that if you don’t get it done this year, next year will be here before you know it.

Visit the Berkshire Botanical Garden’s Annual Plant Sale, where thousands of plants have been selected for their quality and arranged according to their growth habitat. The Garden’s horticultural staff is on hand to ask answer any questions you may have.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 04/20/15 at 09:20 PM • Permalink

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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