Monday, March 30, 2020

Compost Happens!

Being homebound should allow us to turn some “to-do” list items into “just-dones.”  The possibilities are fascinating and endless:  cleaning behind the refrigerator, knocking down cobwebs in the basement, and organizing the toilet tissue collection all come to mind.  Gardeners also keep outdoor to-do lists, so last weekend I tackled sorting out my compost bin.  Putting it to rights has me set up for the coming growing season and given me the deep satisfaction one gets from cleaning a bicycle chain or recycling old socks into dust rags.

My compost bin is a long narrow affair, about four feet wide and 20 feet in length.  I’ve added organic matter, including plant clippings, weeds (without seeds), fall leaves and kitchen scraps for years.  Finished compost, that dark, rich, boundlessly useful soil amendment, forms in the bottom of the pile.  On Saturday morning, my elongated pile consisted of three zones, running from left to right.  Zone One was a heap of finished compost, entirely broken down and waiting to be used.  Zone Two had a mass of almost woody stuff – ornamental grass stems and other tough perennial plant debris from the past few years – sitting on top of more finished compost.  Zone Three was last fall’s clippings and a good heap of kitchen scraps.  The goal was to make three new zones, one of finished compost, another of actively decomposing debris and a third left empty for future use.  Since there is no app for this, it was going to take some muscle.

Using a short-handled digging fork, I first moved Zone Two’s almost woody stuff to the side.  This revealed the compost beneath, which I shoveled onto Zone One, making a massive heap.  Having a big pile of ready-to-use compost is the gardener’s version of a pre-COVID stock portfolio, but there is little chance my black gold will suddenly disappear.  With Zone Two empty, I began re-filling it with all of the plant debris on hand.  Since the kitchen scraps are the quickest to break down and can potentially draw pests, I mixed them thoroughly with the almost woody waste as well as last fall’s clippings, using a tossed salad approach on a rather grand and dirty scale.  In clearing off Zone 3, I found more compost underneath.  This stuff was rather chunky, so my plan is to pass it through a screen (1/4 inch hardware cloth), put the bits back into Zone Two and put the compost to use.

My methods run somewhat counter to the composting advice found in gardening books.  There we are told to build a compost pile using layers of soft, green materials (such as weeds and grass clippings) alternating with brown materials (fall leaves and woodier stems).  I never have these materials at the right time and quantity, so my compost pile is more of a catch-as-catch can affair.  We’re also told to aerate the pile by turning it, which hastens decomposition.  For me, turning is as rare as cleaning behind the refrigerator.  Yet, like things in life, compost happens.  I'm not sure this final photo does justice to all my hard work, but I think my compost pile ended up looking absolutely fabulous.   

Monday, March 23, 2020

Carrying On

Our worlds are getting smaller with COVID-19.  Working from home, avoiding stores, and limiting social contact is just strange.  But there is one thing in which we can indulge:  gardening.  Most often a stay-at-home endeavor, gardening doesn’t require travel, burns nervous energy, and can often be performed solo, especially if no-one else in your house has a green thumb or likes to get their hands dirty.

So what can we do in March?  First and foremost at my place is raking leaves.  The woods behind our house supply leaves in quantity, and although I spent last autumn cleaning up, winter winds piled shoals of brown leaves along the house, behind the garage, and against the raised beds.  If Saturday is dry, I might fire up the leaf shredder and chop them into mulch, getting a jump-start on the Herculean task of mulching all the gardens by May.  With the noise and dust involved, everyone will keep their social distance.

Pruning could also be tackled.  I really enjoy pruning dormant trees and shrubs, since I can easily identify crossing, damaged and diseased wood for removal.  It is a great time to study the form of each plant, and decide how pruning could be used to improve a shape or rein-in exuberant growth.  The warm-ish weather has buds swelling on some plants, so I’ll only prune those still asleep, and avoid those which tend to “bleed” in the spring, including maples and birches.  A neighbor with overgrown rhododendrons asked for advice, and I told her to prune them hard, meaning it is okay to cut back into old wood as far as necessary.  We’re able to do this because rhododendrons can grow new branches from anywhere along their stems.  Not all woody plants have this ability, however, and if you try this with a juniper, you’ll end up with a butchered bush which never re-grows.  Pruning a rhododendron hard now also means no spring flowers, but if your sawing arm is itching for action, it might be worth the sacrifice.

COVID-19 gives us one possible pause in pruning, though.  Plan on what you are going to do with that mountain of trimmings which vigorous pruning will generate.  I would normally load up my little black truck and haul them to our town’s brush pile, but that’s closed right now.  If you have curbside pick-up of yard waste, that may be suspended, too.  Check with your municipality before relying on their normal services, as those folks are stretched thin at the moment.  I have the luxury of having my own mini brush-pile, which I clean up periodically, but not everyone has space enough for that.

The compost pile is also calling my name.  I’ve got a lovely mound of fine, rich “black gold” sitting in the bin, waiting to be spread on the raised beds and then forked in.  Compost is magical stuff, making clay soils drain better and sandy soils hold more water, so digging compost might keep my mind off Corona.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Riddle Me Beech

What do we do about a plant disease we don’t fully understand? This is the difficult situation surrounding a new problem called beech leaf disease.  While it hasn’t been reported in our part of the Hudson Valley yet, it did turn up in New York State in 2019, so I’m going to put it on my tree-problem-worry list and hope I never really have to learn about it.  While I’m not asking you to do the same, if you see something strange happening to a beech tree next summer, please give us a call.

The mystery ignited in 2012 when a biologist in Ohio’s Lake County noticed something odd happening to native beech trees (Fagus americana) in woodlands and well as in landscapes.  Starting in the spring, the leaves of impacted trees took on a strange, striped appearance due to darkened bands between the leaf veins.  These areas eventually turned yellow, crinkly, and leathery (see photo above, from The Ohio State University website at:

.  Heavily damaged leaves curled and dropped off the trees prematurely.  With time, it was seen that young trees started to die within three years of the first symptoms.  The diseased trees were also more susceptible to the myriad of other problems beeches face, which includes mites, aphids and many problematic fungi.  Perhaps the worst actor in this cast of characters is beech scale, an insect introduced into Nova Scotia in the 1890’s which has since marched westward, and opens up trees to infection by a fungus called nectria canker.  This insect-fungus tag team is called beech bark disease and has harmed local beeches for about the last 50 years.    

If all this wasn’t enough, next enter the foliar nematode.  These tiny creatures infect plant foliage, causing patches leaf cells between leaf veins to die.  The damage caused by a foliar nematode looks strangely similar to the beech leaf disease, so researchers began looking for nematodes in beeches, something which had never been seen in the United States before.  They soon hit paydirt, discovering that our American beeches were harboring an organism called Litylenchus crenatae, an Asian beech tree nematode.  So were these the cause of beech leaf disease?  To find out, scientists extracted nematodes from unhealthy trees and injected them into clean trees growing in a greenhouse.  These clean trees then developed the disease, leading researchers to pronounce the nematode the culprit.

Not so fast, say rival researchers from The Ohio State University (disclaimer:  my alma mater and a very fine institution).  They’ve discovered examples of both healthy and unhealthy beeches harboring the nematodes, and additionally found three suspicious types of fungi and three questionable types of bacteria in diseased trees, all of which muddies the waters but might indicate multiple causes for beech leaf disease.  Hopefully, researchers will agree on a cause soon, since we need some treatments for the problem, which has spread rapidly since 2012 into parts of Pennsylvania, Ontario, and our Long Island and lower Hudson Valley.  For Fagus americana, one of our grandest native trees, life is indeed becoming a beech.  

Monday, December 16, 2019

Can You Dig It?

Not everyone gets excited about a pile of organic matter, but I do.  Let me explain by first telling you I am a lazy composter.  I don’t turn or aerate my pile, I simply dump more garden waste on top.  A well-tended compost pile will produce results in just a couple of months, but by my method of benign neglect, plant matter takes its own sweet time to decompose.  Each spring, the pile will have last fall’s debris sitting on top, still intact, but I dig in from the sides to uncover the dark, crumbly “black gold” hiding below.  Recently, I got curious as to how much finished compost was still hiding under the top veneer of detritus, so I decided to remove anything that still looked like a stem or leaf and reveal what remained.  What I found was a mountain of glorious stuff.  At almost three feet high and fifteen feet long, I discovered the mother lode of well-aged compost, just waiting to be used.  Like almost anything else homemade or homegrown, backyard compost is better than money can buy.  In economic terms, I was suddenly the Michael Bloomberg of the flower-growing set.

Not all gardeners have joined the church of the compost pile, but those who have believe in it with some fervor.  While I banish pet waste, meat scraps, or diseased plants from my pile, I do add eggshells and vegetable scraps from the kitchen.  My town doesn’t offer curbside pick-up of leaves (we don’t have curbs), but even if it did, my leaves would still stay home in my compost pile, or get chopped up for leaf mulch.  Composting on-site reduces the amount of fossil fuel it takes to haul raw organic wastes away and then haul finished bags of compost home to the garden.  It saves money and eliminates plastic packaging, too.  But the righteous feeling you get making your own compost pile pales in comparison to the compost itself.  I know what’s in my compost and what’s not.  There is no pesticide residue or heavy metals.  There is no plastic trash, or other junk either, unless that pair of secateurs I lost three years ago turns up.  There are also no invasive jumping worms, a rising concern not only locally but nationwide.  Using your own compost is a lot like knowing where your food comes from.  It feels nice.

I’m going to spread my compost wealth around the garden in a few different ways.  Primarily, I’m adding a few inches across my raised beds to benefit next year’s dahlias and vegetables.  I won’t use it to start seeds (since I can’t be entirely sure it is pathogen-free), but I will mix it with pine or hardwood bark to make a potting mix for older plants.  If I get ambitious next spring, I’d like to renovate a perennial border, and after the old plants come out, compost will go in.  Money doesn’t grow on trees, but free-for-the-making compost encourages the trees to grow better.

Friday, December 13, 2019

A Sage On Osage

“I gave up trying to find the answer to this one and was hoping you could pass it along to one of your crack specialists.”

So started an email with photo received this chilly November.  It is just such tantalizing inquiries which make me appreciate my job.

“If you can’t ID it, I’m gonna call it a maggot ball.  It has a fragrance to it.  It’s about the size of a softball.  Do you think it would spice up the stuffing on Thanksgiving?”

Luckily, I had grown up around maggot balls in rural New Jersey, but we called them monkey oranges.  The yellow-green fruits fell out of scrubby, thorn-laden trees in old hedgerows and along roads.  To my young mind, their most amazing attribute was the texture of their skins, which mimics most alarmingly the surface of a human brain.  This youthful exposure to the trees allowed my own grey cells to easily provide some answers.

Botanical thinkers know this plant as Osage orange, or Maclura pomifera.  Planted nationwide as living fences before the invention of barbed wire, this species is native to the Red River valley in southern Oklahoma and northern Texas.   In that locale, they commonly grow under a bevy of odd names, including hedgeapples, horse apples, or hedge balls.  Since there are separate male and female trees, only the females will develop the balls.  I’ll leave the rest to your fertile imagination.

The fruits of Osage orange look as unappetizing as they are inedible.  The pulp is white, tough and stringy.  The seeds, the most digestible part of the entire mass, are covered with slimy goop.  Cattle sometimes die when they swallow Osage oranges after too little mastication effort.  So why would a tree go to such great lengths to produce such an unappealing fruit?  Perhaps they were designed to attract some now extinct critter that roamed the Oklahoma plains eons ago.  As for the stuffing, stick to bread crumbs.

Monkey oranges make up for their culinary shortfalls in other ways.  New Jersey legend holds that a green fruit in your underwear drawer (or even elsewhere in the house) can repel cockroaches, while in the Midwest Osage oranges were said to retard the advance of crickets, spiders and other pests.  Today, some find these to be valid claims, while others cry pure bunk.  Turning to research for an answer, Iowa State University uncovered yet another odd fact:  chemical compounds in the fruit did indeed thwart German cockroaches, but entire fruits did not.  Would a rotting fruit in your drawers work better?  It’s yet another sticky question for science.

Even more astonishing are the properties of Osage wood.  One of the most naturally rot-resistant types of lumber available, it is superior for fence posts.  Burning it releases more BTUs than almost any other wood.  Students of archery prefer it for bows.  And it has been used to make fine guitars, harps, mandolins and writing pens.

Maggot balls?  Bosch!  We should be proud to call Osage orange a native American.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Bloom Where You Are Planted

I’m not sure that Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, has won the designation “Coolest Small Town In America,” but it ranks high in my opinion.  A thriving downtown, beautiful location amongst rolling hills and public artworks make it a pleasant place to be.  But what puts it over the top is The Bridge of Flowers, a horticultural showstopper that draws thousands of visitors annually from around the world.

Back in 1908, building a bridge across the Deerfield River to carry railway freight and passengers, as well as a water line, seemed like a good idea.  The nearby Iron Bridge, constructed in 1890, wasn’t up to the job (yet, somewhat ironically, it is still in use for motor vehicle traffic today).  In a fit of optimism, The Shelburne Falls and Colrain Street Railway paid $20,000 to have a new bridge constructed.  They built well:  the sturdy structure was formed of concrete and featured five arches.  Soon, the Railway was transporting everything from mill products and farm produce to U.S. mail, and carrying 200,000 passengers each year.  But those heydays were short-lived.  As cars and trucks became more numerous, the fortunes of the Railway declined, and it ceased operations in 1927.  With the trolleys gone, the bridge could have been destroyed, but the necessary water line made that impractical, and it was a costly proposition, anyway.  What could be done with a bridge with diminished purpose?     

It might have been a stroke of genius, or perhaps Yankee ingenuity, but the bridge didn’t sit derelict for long.  While doing household chores, local resident Antoinette Burnham suddenly struck upon the idea of turning the bridge into a garden.  Aided by her husband Walter and a growing cadre of supporters, a fundraising concert was held and funds gathered.  Soil was ordered and the first plantings installed in 1929.  Eventually, the Bridge of Flowers Committee, under the aegis of The Shelburne Falls Women’s Club, germinated to further organize the efforts.  Today, two part-time paid gardeners, assisted by many volunteers, keep the bridge looking beautiful from April to October.  The initial budget of $1,000 has also grown, thanks to memorial gifts, bequests and donations given in secure boxes located at either end of the structure.  And when significant deterioration threatened the structure by the 1970’s, the good folks involved rallied once more, raising thousands to reconstruct and repair so both bridge and garden would survive.

While planting in two narrow beds on a bridge dozens of feet above the water might seem daunting, it turns out to be a pretty good place to grow.  The soil depth varies from 2 ½ to 9 feet, allowing trees to be planted in the deeper areas.  When I visited in August, dahlias in a broad array of colors were featured, supported by daylilies, phlox, crocosmia, hibiscus and coneflowers.  Annuals such as sunflowers and bachelors buttons shared space with woody viburnums, hydrangeas, redbuds and even a hemlock.  All were kept in tip-top form with nary a weed in site.  Happy 90th Birthday, Bridge of Flowers!   

Monday, October 7, 2019

Sneezemaker and the Basswood Bees

Each September finds me, along with some other adventurous souls, ambling in honor of the Hudson River Valley Ramble.  This series of events, all held in proximity to our great waterway, aims to get people out and doing.  I enjoy leading my plant walk on Papscanee Island, where we visit the tree that grew in Brooklyn (Ailanthus altissima) as well as the plant that killed Abraham Lincoln’s mother (white snakeroot).  We pause at old favorites, like the three hostas growing under the touch-me-nots, and always find something new, too.

Our novelty this year turned out to be a lovely plant I once tried, and failed, to grow in my garden.  We discovered just one small patch of Helenium autumnale, sometimes called Helen’s Flower, growing inches from the mighty Hudson. The location wasn’t surprising; it requires a moist soil, making it a denizen of streambanks, ditches, pondsides and the like, in all lower-48 states.  My garden, it turns out, is just too dry.  The bright yellow flowers, composed of a prominent disk surrounded by fringed rays, make it a thing of beauty.  The plant hybridizers, seizing something good, turned Helenium into a garden center commodity by expanding its floral color range into all shades of red and orange.  Don’t focus on its other common name, however, since no one wants to grow sneezeweed.  This moniker derives from the old-time practice of using the dried blossoms and leaves as snuff.  Nowadays, it’s more likely that nursery customers might assume sneezeweed causes allergies, and drop it like a pot of poison ivy, so smart marketers focus on the connection to beautiful Helen of Troy.  Supposedly, Helen’s falling tears caused this plant to spring forth.  That would be quite a feat, since she lived in Greece and Helenium is strictly American, but let’s not question the gods too closely.

A tour highlight is finding the lone basswood tree, known also as American linden and botanically as Tilia Americana.  This takes some doing, as it stands some distance from the path amongst impenetrable thicket; one year we missed it altogether.  Growing naturally from New England to North Dakota and into the upper South, basswood thrives in rich, damp bottomland soils but also makes a living on drier slopes, too.  Pyramidal in youth and aging to oblong or rounded in shape, it can reach 60 feet tall or much higher.  The dark green, heart-shaped leaves hide small pale yellow flowers, which appear in June and lure scads of honeybees and other pollinators.  Crafty beekeepers take advantage of this situation by placing hives in linden groves and taking the honey produced off as soon as the linden flowers fade. It is described as pale-colored, medium sweet, and highly aromatic.  Basswoods are rarely found in home landscapes, although they sometimes appear in parks or on golf courses.  Passed up in favor of the littleleaf linden, darling of European horticulture which has spread here, perhaps someday we’ll prize our native version here as highly as I regard the lone wolf on Papscanee.