Thursday, January 14, 2021

Getting A Head Start

Gardening guru Jerry Baker said plants were like people, and I believe seeds are, too.  Some seeds grow easily under many conditions, like your friend who thrives no matter what life gives her.  Similar to your black sheep cousin arriving on your doorstep, some seeds germinate unexpectedly by the back steps, in the driveway gravel, or in the compost pile.  Others are as fussy as your little sister, needing precise coddling to get moving.

This last group of seeds generally requires starting indoors well before planting out in the wide world.  The tiny print on the seed packet gently suggesting “start indoors eight to ten weeks before planting out” is a warning to plan ahead.  Other crops, such as tomatoes, germinate easily but take a good three months or more to fruit, so giving them a head start indoors assures production in the current calendar year. 

After assessing which seeds need what conditions, assemble your gear.  I like to use a soil-less mix, containing peat, perlite and vermiculite, specially formulated for seeds.  It’s lightweight, drains well, and contains no killer pathogens.  You can make your own mix, and even pasteurize it in your kitchen oven, but the stink and mess can substantially reduce household harmony.  I also use professional grade plastic cells, those familiar “six packs” seen in nurseries, but a wide array of food containers, cleaned and given drainage holes, may work just as well.  Containers can also be fashioned as soil blocks, made from peat or coir, or created from newspaper. 

Seedlings need light, a tricky proposition if you rely on a windowsill location here in sun-deprived upstate New York.  While the daylight is incrementally getting longer, cloudy days and low light intensity tend to leave seedlings spindly and weak.  Luckily, we’ve got artificial options.  Swanky “growing systems” with stands, trays, and lights are attractive, durable and easy to use.  Still, they’re too costly for thrifty me, who relies on classic “shop lights,” the four foot fixtures with two fluorescent bulbs.  Newer T-8 bulbs are longer lasting and more economical than the older T-12 type, while LED bulbs are more efficient still, and seedlings of most plant species will thrive under all of them.  Special “grow lights,” which produce more red and far-red light, are not needed for seedlings, but are a must if you’re trying to grow flowering plants under lights, such as African violets or orchids.

A swift kick in the bottom gets me motivated on Monday morning; a seed’s equivalent is bottom heat.  Put your seed tray on a heat mat, plug it in, and watch germination time drop as the seeds pop.  Put the tray on a warm surface – the top of the refrigerator or furnace – to get the same effect.  While many seeds will grow at normal room air temperatures, extra root-zone warmth helps.  The biggest danger is over-exuberance.  If your ‘Lemon Gem’ marigold packet advises six weeks start time, plant them on April 1, not February 1.  Seedlings get cabin fever just like the rest of us.        

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Launching Potential

A new year and a packet of seeds:  both are full of promise.  This is what I think as I navigate around the four huge boxes of unsold seeds a large retailer gifted our Master Gardener group, which now sit in my office.  Seeds of vegetables from A to Z and flowers of every color give a gardener the starry eyes of a Christmas morning kid with ribbons to untie and boxes to unwrap.  And just about anyone can share in the magic of seeds.  Author Sue Stuart-Smith writes, “Gardening is more accessible than other creative endeavors, such as painting and music, because you are halfway there before you start; the seed has all its potential within it – the gardener simply helps unlock it.”

Some of these donated seeds are easy to grow, while others demand more coaxing.  Seed packet verbiage gives clues how to begin.  Something like “sow after all danger of frost has passed” means being patient until a dry, warm day in May, then heading outdoors with a shovel.  Instructions will hopefully also reveal how deep to plant the seed and how far apart from its neighbor it should go.  If planting in a row, some gardeners use two stakes and string to make a straight trench.  Directions for planting squash and their kin call for planting on a “hill,” which is just a slightly raised mound where you can install some seeds in a circular formation.  Mel Bartholomew, who introduced the world to his “square foot gardening” method, encouraged growing vegetables in a grid pattern, and his books are well worth reading, especially if you grow in raised beds.  Seed spacing is more important than your overall pattern, since seeds sown too closely will become overcrowded seedlings if the germination rate is high.  While you can always thin them, by plucking out the extras and leaving a chosen few, doing your best to space properly reduces wastage and that guilty feeling of uprooting innocent creatures.

By walking outside and sticking a seed in the soil, you are participating in the “direct sowing” method.  A wide variety of plants, from pumpkins and carrots to marigolds and zinnias, can be started this way.  Most will desire full sun but will tolerate some shady times of the day.  Most will prefer soil which drains well but still retains some moisture – something between beach sand and pottery clay.  Checking the pH, adding compost and giving the soil some fertilizer are all things, as a professional horticulturist, I am supposed to direct you to do, with good reason, as generally the plants grow better.  But sometimes professional advice can turn into obstacles, and I would much rather see people plant a garden and experience their results than get overwhelmed and stuck by too many rules at square one.  You can always contact us at Extension if things go wonky.

If you work with a school or community group and need vegetable and flower seeds, email me at and maybe we can help.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

An Owl Ally

 Although I’m primarily a gardener, I’m for the birds, too.  Master Gardener Richard Demick shares this story.

“I was very happy to see a special visitor in the backyard in mid-November. I was at the kitchen counter cooking at about ten in the morning. I looked up from my project and there was a Barred Owl sitting in the river birch tree about 50 feet across the yard.  I stopped what I was doing and ran for the camera. Thankfully the owl visitor waited for my return. I got a couple shots before it dropped off the branch in a long, low swoop heading for the neighbors’ spruce trees.

The Barred Owl call, which I didn’t hear, is said to sound like “Who Cooks For You? Who Cooks For You All?! This is one of more than a dozen Barred Owl calls ranging from a “siren call” to a “wail” to a “monkey call.”  We had seen signs of a “big bird” out back the past few weeks. One day it was seen dropping from an old white pine and sweeping up into the poplars in the wetland. Another day it flew from the back lawn followed by two small companions into the nearby woods. Seen from the back flying away it was a dark colored bird with large wings.

I haven’t seen an owl in years. This was a real treat. It may also be the solution to clearing the lawn and garden beds of an explosion of voles, mice and moles. The vole tunnels run from the native border along the brook across the lawn into the catmint and lady’s mantle perennial border. The steep lawn along Route 43 has conical piles of soil that look like mole excavations. There are spots in the lawn proper where your foot sinks as though stepping on a soft mattress. More vole activity?

Then the problem expands into the garden shed. Chicken feed is stored in plastic bins. An avant-garde chicken coop is attached to the shed. Three gasoline powered yard machines are stored in the shed. Today I started the snowblower and a cup full of oat seeds blew out of the muffler. Lifting up the garden tractor seat exposed another cache of seeds. The yellow bucket hanging from the ceiling used for oil change collection also contained oat seeds.

Oat seeds are in the scratch feed for the chickens. They prefer the cracked corn and don’t eat the oat seeds. The mice are collecting the uneaten seeds from the chicken run or are getting them directly from the plastic bins. A trap was set but not strong enough to eliminate the seed savers. So, no human solution to the destructive rodent activity yet.

I’m hoping the Barred Owls will clear the lawn and garden beds of voles, mice, and moles. Traps, screen and weather stripping will help with the mouse invasion in the garden shed. Sorry to go the trap route but mouse damage to power equipment is costly to repair and if unnoticed can totally destroy a gasoline engine.”

Monday, December 21, 2020

Spice Up Christmas

My first spicy Christmas memory was of sticking cloves in an orange in Sunday school.  While I’ve never discovered the significance of that Advent exercise, I do know peppermint candy canes, scented candles, and especially the office party punchbowl add zest to the holidays.  Our recent batch of spice cookies, featuring cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and allspice, was rather lost on me due to my middle-age allergies, but I still find fascinating all the scents and seasonings the plant world provides.

Pumpkin pie, that most Yankee of desserts, would be rather bland without a West Indies native called Pimenta dioica.  Just who discovered that the fruits of this tree could be ground and eaten is lost to history, but the English thought the powder tasted like a combination of cinnamon, cloves, black pepper and nutmeg and called it allspice.  Once traders got their mitts on allspice, it traveled the world over and become a staple flavor in dozens of far-flung cultures.  Caribbean cuisine adds it to jerk seasoning, mole sauces and pickling.  In the Middle East, it is often found in stews and meat dishes, while in Germany commercial sausage-makers rely on it.  The British like it in desserts, while Ohioans claim their Cincinnati chili just isn’t right without it.  Interestingly, allspice can also be used as a deodorant:  could that be the inspiration behind the Old Spice I used to give my dad?

I know anise from the Norwegian krumkake cookies my grandmother made for Christmas; if I was Italian it would have been pizzelles, or German, pfeffernusse.  Anise, or Pimpinella ansium, is an herbaceous plant growing to three feet, native to the eastern Mediterranean and southwest Asia.  The small fruits have a distinctive scent and flavor similar to liquorice, fennel and tarragon.  If anise-flavored cookies don’t do it for you, there are stronger alternatives; anise is an ingredient in the liquors absinthe, anisette, pastis, Jagermeister and raki.  Years ago, I tried but never learned to drink anise-flavored sambuca with my Italian friends after a meal, perhaps because I thought my cookie-toting granny was watching.

Nutmeg may be the spice with the most turbulent history.  Seeds of the tree Myristica fragrans yield both nutmeg and mace, and were native only to the Banda Islands, a remote chain in the Indian Ocean.  Arab traders kept the source secret for centuries as they sold these spices to Europeans for astronomical prices.  In 1512, the brave and crafty Portuguese explorer Afonso de Albuquerque learned of nutmeg’s source and sent three ships to the islands.  While a trade developed, the Bandanese people still retained control.  Later, the Dutch took over, but their reign was challenged by the Bandanese and the English; war, massacre, and exodus ensued.  At one point the Dutch gave the English control of Manhattan in exchange for tiny Run Island and its nutmeg.  Later still, the Brits came in again, took trees to Grenada and Zanzibar, and broke the nutmeg monopoly.  

All so we could put some nutmeg in our eggnog.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Wise Men Gift Green

I’ve long maintained that Christmas is a horticultural holiday.  There’s the tree, obviously, and a large supporting cast of plants, including the Poinsettia, mistletoe, cyclamen, holly and ivy, various greens and even the Christmas cactus. Dig even deeper, back to the first Christmas, and we find the Wise Men offering gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  While I have a good grasp on the first gift, I’ve always been a little fuzzy on just what the last two are all about.

Both, it turns out, are plant products.  Nineteen species of a tree called Boswellia, which grow from the west coast of India along the Arabian Sea and through central Africa, give us frankincense.  Its name comes from the Old French moniker “franc encens,” for noble or pure incense.  The principle species is Boswellia sacra, a tree growing to about 25 feet tall.  No stranger to tough conditions, it lives on dry, rocky hillsides in limestone soils.  It has pinnately compound,  crinkley leaves, a spreading, vase-shaped form, bark similar to parchment paper and is often multi-trunked.  The racemes of white flowers turn into small seed capsules.  Frankincense is made by first wounding the tree’s bark, then collecting the gummy sap which exudes from injuries.  The palest frankincense is said to be the most desirable. 

Like many good things found in nature, Boswellia trees have been over-tapped and are now threatened in some areas.  Boswellia plants aren’t easy to find in the nursery trade and seed viability can be low, especially if the mother tree had been wounded too often.  Horticulturists in the know say that Boswellia is one of those plants which will grow only where it wants, and so presents a real challenge to produce in cultivation.  And while frankincense has been employed in perfumes and religious ceremonies for centuries, modern science is showing that it’s medical uses may be both beneficial and harmful.     

Myrrh is made from a tree called Commiphora myrrha.  It has many similarities to Boswellia; in fact, botanically speaking, they are both in the same plant family, called Burseraceae, or the incense tree family.  Other plants in this group, which include members with colorful names like gumbo limbo, Mexican elephant tree and the tabonuco, can be found worldwide and tend to contain many powerful chemical compounds.   There are at least 190 species of Commiphora, which are found from Africa to Vietnam, but C. myrrha is native only to parts of Africa and Arabia. It reaches a height of about fifteen feet, has tiny white flowers and small green leaves, and is a prickly character, being armed with very long, pointy spines.  It requires thin soils, hot weather and about ten inches of rainfall yearly.  Like frankincense, the marketable product is made from scoring the tree and collecting the resinous gum. 

Myrrh’s many uses included anointing and embalming oils, medicine in a wide variety of forms, perfume, and even as a vermifuge and fungicide.  The Magi were kings in knowing what to give.   

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Trying Out The Trends

I generally try to be the person my dog thinks I am, but today I have to disappoint my canine Magnus and write about cats.  Felines, it happens, are the reason for one of the latest gardening trends, the “catio.”  Being more of a troglodyte than a trendsetter, I had to look this up, and found that a catio is an enclosed, outdoor room for cats.  While we are currently cat-less, I had to learn more.

Catios, it turns out, are available as building plans and kits, and are featured on numerous websites and blogs.  They can be small and windowbox-like, with the cats having access via a window, or much larger and taller, with one or more room-like spaces allowing full access for humans.  Construction is generally wood framing with wire mesh walls and at least a partial roof to keep out the worst weather.  Accessorizing, as usual, is a big part of the fun, and platforms, runways, sacrificial plants, and various toys can be added.  Cat parents report that their charges love basking in the sunshine, smelling the alluring breezes and watching wildlife, all from a safe vantage point.  Cranky kitties become more mellow and even happy cats think having a little outdoor time is purrfect.

As extravagant as at a catio sounds, keeping your pets safe from outdoor threats, and creatures like birds safe from cats, is a wonderful concept.  If we still had our tuxedo cat Roosevelt, master of demanding dinner, I’m certain he could pressure me into building a catio.  Sadly, he’s crossed the Rainbow Bridge, and I’ve developed allergies, so Magnus won’t have any new cat companions anytime soon.

I need to mask up and get out more, or at least spend less time in the dirt and more in front of a screen, if I’m to learn about gardening trends.  Interior designers love gray right now, and now it’s the color to use in the garden, too.  While l like gray-leaved plants (such as Artemsia ‘Silver Mound’), gray reminds me too much of ugly winter skies, so I’m bucking this fad in favor of any other tone or hue.  And if live plants are too much work, go plastic!  Artificial boxwood is drought tolerant, blight resistant, never needs pruning, and is guaranteed to put us horticulturists out of business.   

Succulents, those multi-colored, fantastically-shape plants of warm and dry climates, have been hot for a while, but now we’ve got dashboard gardening.  Why not grow succulents, or anything else for that matter, inside your car?  While it is suggested that cupholders might provide the best chances for needed stability, and that winter cold and summer heat might limit the season to spring and fall, the soothing presence of a potted pothos could reduce the stress of road rage and traffic jams.  Just remember to keep the windows clear of excessive foliage and the vines away from the accelerator pedal.  Soon AAA roadside assistance may offer to diagnose a scale-infested Subaru or a Mercury with mealybugs. 

Monday, November 23, 2020

Dead Wood Is Still Good Wood

 “Ideally, your forest should have four to six snags per acre,” says Kristi Sullivan, who hails from Cornell’s Department of Natural Resources and the Environment.  This was news to me.  Anyone who works with computers, has a boss, or tries to organize anything is annoyed by snags.  I’ve hit snags when paddling my kayak and even snagged my jeans on a barbed wire fence.  But snags in the woods?  Kristi’s snags, in forestry parlance, turn out to dead, but standing, trees.  Once I’d gotten around that snafu, it all started to make sense. 

What looks like rotting timber to us is a multi-use opportunity for the wild things.  According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, “birds, small mammals, and other wildlife use snags for nests, nurseries, storage areas, foraging, roosting, and perching. Live trees with snag-like features, such as hollow trunks, excavated cavities, and dead branches can provide similar wildlife value. Snags occurring along streams and shorelines eventually may fall into the water, adding important woody debris to aquatic habitat. Dead branches are often used as perches; snags that lack limbs are often more decayed and may have more and larger cavities for shelter and nesting. Snags enhance local natural areas by attracting wildlife species that may not otherwise be found there.” 

Any tree species, including hardwoods and conifers, can become a valuable snag.  The process begins with a hard snag, or a tree which is partially or totally dead but still has its bark and inner tissues largely intact.  Woodpeckers are especially attracted to such real estate and start their excavating activities, earning themselves the moniker of primary cavity nesters.  Since woodpeckers become bored easily and don’t nest in the same hole twice, they move on and carve out new homes elsewhere.  Then avians including bluebirds, swallows, chickadees, nuthatches, house wrens, wood ducks and owls, who cannot excavate cavities themselves, move in next.  Meanwhile, the tree continues to decay, with fungi advancing and weakening the wood fibers, creating a soft snag.  Soft snags don’t have limbs and often lose their tops.  As the forces of weather, animals and fungi continue, the remaining hulk eventually falls over, but still provides food and shelter on the forest floor.  I’m sure foresters have a technical term for a dead tree lying on the ground, but I don’t know it.

This discussion sprouts two ideas in my gardener’s mind.  First, we are often much too neat.  Nature would benefit if we left more rotting stumps and standing snags.  When gardening friends raise an eyebrow over our apparent sloppiness, we could grasp the moment as an educational opportunity.  Secondly, snags could be a way to positively end my relationship with some Norway maples.  These invasives are growing on the edge of our woods, and while I know they should come down, that seems a daunting task.  By removing a four inch band of bark to girdle them, they’ll turn into useful snags, then eventually fall quite harmlessly (I hope) to earth.  That’s my plan, unless I hit a you-know-what.