Winter Optimism

From 2001 to 2005, I made ends meet working as a freelance editor. (Granted, my gainfully-employed husband deserves some credit here also.) My biggest client during those years was the American Conifer Society, for whom I worked as Editor of their 48-page member publication, the Conifer Quarterly, for three years beginning in early 2003.

I was recently looking through old issues of the “CQ” for some writing samples to add to my porfolio, recalling that I wrote a one-page column for each issue titled “Editor’s Memo.” Here’s part of what I wrote in the Fall 2004 issue, the first one I happened to check:

Summer is gone and autumn is upon us. Rather than fight the change in seasons, I share with you my top three reasons to enjoy the coming of winter:

#3 – Deciduous conifers are turning color and shedding their needles, providing conifer collectors an opportunity to educate passers-by who ask, “Why is your pine tree dying?”

#2 – The higher the ratio of evergreens to deciduous plants in your garden, the more confidently you can sit back and enjoy a soothing beverage as neighbors drag rakes and lug leaf blowers around their yards for four weekends in a row.

#1 – Pruning conifers and other evergreens in late fall provides a free supply of material for making unique holiday garlands. Be the only one on your block to have Hinoki falsecypress and golden arborvitae roping draped over your front door!

Enjoy the coming of winter? Did I write that? Maybe it’s time to revisit my own advice and, rather than dwell on the winter’s cold and darkness, remember to focus with a bit a humor on the season’s unique delights!

2011 Seed-starting tally

From top to bottom: "Italian dandelion," flat-leaf parsley, and yellow Swiss chard.

After several years of buying veggie plants from garden centers, I was inspired to go back to starting my own from seed for 2011. A few factors motivated me:

  1. My husband announced he was willing – and eager – to eat more homegrown greens, like lettuce and kale, that are easy to grow from seed.
  2. I realized my summer would be incomplete without two specific tomato varieties, ‘Juliet’ and ‘Lemon Boy,’ so by starting my own I’d be sure to get them.
  3. I rediscovered my heating mat and the 48-inch long, adjustable-height fluorescent light fixture I’d used to start seeds in our spare room a few springs ago. (Yes, in an attic like ours, it’s possible to overlook a 48-inch light fixture for a couple years.)

It’s very important to use BRIGHT artificial light to grow seedlings indoors in Pennsylvania and similar climates. A sunny window may look inviting, but we always get a week of dark, cloudy weather as soon as my tomatoes germinate, leading to wimpy seedlings stretching desperately toward the dim outdoors.

Here’s the tally of herb and vegetable seeds I started indoors, along with the seeding dates based on an expected May 1 transplating to the outdoors:

  • Stevia (March 6)
  • Tomato ‘Sweet Pea’ (March 6)
  • Tomatoes ‘Juliet,’ ‘Lemon Boy,’ and ‘Gilbertie’ (March 11)
  • Kale, a Tocano type (March 20)
  • Swiss chard (April 1)
  • Italian dandelion, Cichorium intybus ‘Clio’ – yes, a weed, but tasty! (April 1)
  • Basil, Italian Genovese (April 1) *
  • Parsley, Italian flat-leaf (April 1) *

My strategy was to start the seeds in trays (not cells), then transplant the seedlings into plastic cell trays or peat-pot cells after they’d developed at least one pair of true leaves. Once the transplanting began, I quickly ran out of space under the light, so I began setting the cell trays outside during the day and bringing them in at night so they wouldn’t get chilled. (Even clouds outdoors are better than artificial light indoors!) This generally worked after April 1st. I got poor germination from the stevia seeds, but everything else worked great.

Seedlings enjoy the April rain. One of the trays includes rosemary I grew from cuttings.

I also planted a few things directly into the garden, as they tolerate cool weather and don’t transplant well:

  • Snap peas ‘Sugar Sprint’ (March 30)
  • Arugula (April 25)
  • Lettuce mix (April 25)

Arugula, about 3 weeks after seeding

Alas, I’ve still got a handful of seed packets yet to be planted: cucumbers, trailing nasturtiums, pole beans, and cilantro. I’ve run out of space in the garden, so I need to delete some more ornamentals to make room for these. I do plan to train the cukes and beans on trellises, but I’m still working out the details!

* Yes, basil and parsley are common plants and easy to come by in garden centers. Unfortunately, they’re almost always sold as five or ten small seedlings growing intertwined in a 3-inch pot, the plants just a bit too large to separate but too crowded to grow well individually. Clearly, the growers sow directly into the retail pots to avoid the hassle of transplanting, but while these squished-together seedlings “fill the pot” visually, they’re difficult if not impossible to grow on. No thanks!

Mason bee nesting season closed

My last post described mason bees and displayed my brand new nesting box. At the close of the bees’ active nesting season, about a quarter of the tubes are filled with eggs separated by mud walls. Mother mason bee has included a bit of pollen for each larvae to eat as it develops.

I consider this first-year occupancy rate a success, since this bee condo is a bit remote from my garden and other mason bee nesting structures. (It’s hanging outside my kitchen door, facing the driveway.)

Have a great year, little bees! See you when you emerge next April.

Mason bee condos

Mason bees (Osmia spp.) are mostly-native, solitary bees that actively forage for nectar and pollen during a few brief weeks in April and May here in Southeastern Pennsylvania. The adults began emerging this week during the few warm, dry days that interrupted our cool spring weather.

Overviews of the mason bees’ life cycle and habits can be found here and here.

Since the bees require tunnels for nesting but can’t excavate their own nests the way carpenter bees do, you can attract them to your garden by providing nesting blocks, bundles of bamboo, or commercially-available cardboard or paper tubes. The holes should be sized as close to 5/16 of an inch as possible. Since next year’s bees will be developing inside the tunnels for an entire year, it’s best to place the nesting block or bundle in a location protected from excessive rain or snow, such as under a porch roof.

 

I made several rustic wood nesting blocks like this one last year. Note that I drilled a few larger holes in the forth row down, but the bees didn’t occupy those tunnels. I purchased the plastic cylinder with empty cardboard tubes, and the mud “plugs” indicate that nesting females completely filled those tunnels with eggs last year. The adult bees will emerge over the next couple of weeks!

 

If you’re a creative type, you can already imagine the wide variety of mason bee nest structures that would provide the basic requirement of dry, 5/16-inch diameter tunnels. My friend Keith Snyder has elevated mason-bee home construction to an art form, as proven by his latest creation shown below (which I was lucky enough to receive as an early birthday gift this year!).

 

Keith prefers to use natural and reclaimed materials. He built the wooden frame of this bee condo with scrap wood, painted it green, and filled the compartments with Phragmites stems (yes, the invasive wetland plant!) and rolled-up, dried southern magnolia leaves. Keith picks up vintage costume-jewelry bees in his flea-market travels and often adds one as a decorative touch.

In a couple weeks, dozens of recently-emerged and mated female bees should be busy laying eggs in these tubes. I’ll try to post photos!

Edible Wild Plants class on April 30

I’m co-teaching a two-hour class on Edible Wild Plants on April 30th at the Morris Arboretum, along with horticulture staff member Tom Bishop. Tom is one of the Arboretum’s best-kept secrets and has been nibbling on wild plants for most of his life!

I’ve included he course description below; to sign up, please contact the Arboretum at (215) 247-5777 x 125. More coure info is available at morrisarboretum.org.

 

Morris Arboretum

 

In his 1966 book Stalking the Healthful Herbs, Euell Gibbons called stinging nettle “one of the finest and most nutritious foods in the whole plant kingdom.” Now, the Eat Local movement is bringing wild edible plants into the mainstream. Whether you’re a roadside forager gathering nettles, or a farmer’s-market shopper wondering what to do with pokeweed stems or lamb’s-quarters, you will enjoy this hands-on class.

During the first hour, you will learn about the native and introduced edible plants that grow wild in our region’s parks and neighborhoods, as well some as tasty ornamental garden species you never knew you could eat! A foraging tour of the Arboretum’s Natural Areas will follow, during which you will identify and harvest some of these wild edibles. (Some sites can be muddy, so please wear appropriate shoes.) Tom Bishop joined the Arboretum’s Horticulture Staff in 1997 and is a lifelong forager and observer of the natural world. Anne Brennan is a former Arboretum horticulturist who most recently managed the Natural Areas, where wild edible plants abound.

Cost: $25 for members, $30 for non-members.

Raspberry Research

Raspberries sit high atop my list of favorite kitchen-garden staples. What’s not to like about a perennial, shade-tolerant plant that only requires minor annual pruning and a few visiting bumblebees to produce sweet, juicy berries? They’re literally one of the easiest edibles to grow. Unless you have deer in your garden. But I don’t.

My 2 x 6-foot raspberry patch began as a few offshoots received from a friend, so unfortunately I don’t know that variety’s name. Since it produces a small crop in late spring and a second, larger crop in early fall, I do know it’s an everbearing type, ‘Heritage’ being a good possibility due to its popularity. [Update 3/8: I found my original plant label while raking leaves; these plants are in fact ‘Heritage.’] In contrast, summer-bearing varieties ripen all of their fruit within a few weeks during July in our area.

Because raspberries are so easy to grow, I wanted to add more varieties to the garden for comparison. (It’s like when you buy a pair of purple shoes, fall in love with them, and decide you really must have not one but FOUR pairs of purple shoes in slightly different shades because purple shoes are awesome.) Last summer, I picked up a single potted ‘Caroline’ raspberry plant at Whole Foods; it was marked down to 50% off and therefore jumped into my shopping cart unbidden.

‘Caroline’ ended up in the front yard and got broken off near the ground this winter beneath a mountain of shoveled snow, but I’m optimistic it will re-sprout from the base as spring arrives. This is another everbearing variety.

Three more varieties joined my collection unexpectedly this week when I walked through the door at Home Depot to replenish my leaf-bag supply, only to come face to face with a display of spring bulbs, seed packets, and yes, raspberry plants! What’s $5.95 x 3 compared to the joy of fruit-topped cereal and yogurt come July? I chose two black raspberry types, ‘Logan’ and ‘Cumberland,’ plus a red-fruiting type called ‘Latham.’ I know very little about these yet but will report on their progress in a few months.

By the way, raspberry plants do send up root suckers that lend themselves to transplanting and sharing with follow gardeners! So stick around, and I’ll let you know when some daughter plants from my original raspberry patch are in need of good homes.

Horseradish harvest

Jars of grated horseradish

Last Sunday was the first 60F-degree day near the end of a long, cold, snowy winter, so I was in the mood to dig in the dirt. Several friends had requested divisions from my five-year-old horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) clump, so I figured I’d start there.

I never ate horseradish growing up. My only recollection of its existence was as an ingredient in Arby’s “Horsey Sauce,” which I never actually tasted, having been warned by my seasoning-challenged parents that it was “too spicy!” As an adult, realizing that horseradish is the essential second ingredient in shrimp cocktail sauce, I decided it deserved a place in my herb garden.

However, in four years, I’d harvested horseradish roots for consumption exactly one time; the suggestion is to wait until winter for best flavor, but then there’s the problem of frozen ground covered with snow. And who eats shrimp cocktail in the wintertime anyway? The horseradish didn’t need me and I didn’t need it, so we ignored each other and did our own thing.

Last spring, I decided I was “over” horseradish and needed its sunny location for something more exciting, so I tried unsuccessfully to dig the whole clump out. Ha! Some roots were as thick as my wrist and extended downward toward infinity, so I hacked at them as best I could.

Not surprisingly, the surviving roots produced a thick flush of new foliage a few weeks later, so I cut the leaves off at the ground. (The small, new leaves are edible, with a spicy taste much like the roots’.) Had I continued to harvest the leaves, I might have eventually exhausted the roots’ energy reserves, but the next thing I knew it was mid-summer, and the clump was every bit as vigorous as in past years. Anne – 0, Horseradish – 1.

So, back to sunny, sixty-degree Sunday. I wouldn’t want to deprive my gardening friends of some root-wresting adventures of their own – hey, they asked for divisions! – so I cut off some of the crowns, shortened each attached root to 2-3 inches, and potted them up. I felt like a kid who cuts the green top from a carrot and plants it to see if a new carrot will grow.

Oh, and I dug up a few huge root segments there were too grotesquely large to pot up, so out came the box grater and the vinegar. Summer’s coming… bring on the shrimp!

As always, feel free to email me with comments or questions.