Archive for May, 2008

Gorgeous Fall Chrysanthemums start now

Back last November, after going on at some length about leaf sweepers, I promised to discuss growing chrysanthemums like this football – ‘Ticonderoga’ – 

home grown football mum

at the proper time. Which it more or less is.

 For growing instructions:

Read More…

Mystery Azalea – Part 2

Being the part(s)  I should have mentioned last post. The azalea is a very early bloomer, and it’s growing in the mid Hudson Valley, zone 5b, where many very spiffy azaleas are – at least theoretically – not hardy. According to the USDA, our average winter lows are somewhere around 10 below. According to recent history, it’s more like 2 or 3 below, max. But still.

Also neglected to show a mugshot in which the freckles were easy to see, so here they are:

mystery evergreen azalea, white 

Name That Azalea

Can Anybody?

early white azalea

 Here’s what we know about it:

It was here – and huge – when we got the house, 17 years ago.

It’s evergreen.

It blooms reliably every year (and abundantly, now that we have deer fencing).

It is fragrant, more in some years than others. Always with a very light, sweet clean laundry perfume that completely suits the flowers.

It has very long internodes, even when I prune it which I usually don’t.

the leaves are fuzzy

new azalea leaves , still furled

and they get occasional splotches of some kind of rusty fungus that doesn’t bother them. It doesn’t bother us, either, because the bush is on the far side of the yard, and we don’t cut the flowers for the vase. 

Every spring when I go plant shopping I bring along a flowering branch. No nursery I’ve visited has had a clue. Everybody just says ” it must be something old.”  

The closest thing I can find is R. mucronatum, but that’s described as a semi-evergreen that blooms midseason and is hardy only to zone 7, so it’s a case of “close but no cigar.”

I’d love to know what it is. I’d also love to know why it was planted next to a bunch of leucothoe, the stinkiest bloomer in all shrubdom whatever its other virtues.

white azalea next to leucothoe 


At Home in The Garden; The Garden Kitchen

Talks coming up at each end of the summer.

June 26, 6:30PM, Thomaston Public Library, Thomaston, Maine,  Art in the Environment lecture series:

Your Own Private Environment: At Home in the Garden

A lot of what matters inside matters outside too: a comfortable flow of traffic from place to place,  plenty of light, individual personality in the décor department and of course a terrific kitchen (aka vegetables). I never know until the last minute, but it’s safe to say I’ll be discussing basic cottage garden design; integrating food plants with ornamentals; and durable garden embellishments from homemade twig arches to antique urns. 

September 12 – 14 Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, Boothbay , Maine

 Maine Fare  – The 3rd annual get-together focussed on Maine Food:  tastings, marketplace, workshops, demos, talks and a couple of very special meals. As usual, I’ll be holding forth on eating locally in a cold climate and demonstrating tasty strategies that make it easy to do. As usual, that’s all I know right now. Please check the Maine Fare Website frequently for detailed updates on the whole weekend’s offerings.

Update: Mainefare for this year has been cancelled, but that doesn’t change the “please check the website” part. Planners tell me they are doing this in order to make 09 even more wnderful and there are rumors of interesting sub-events to still be held this fall.

The Bears and the Bees

It has been several years since bears first came through our yard, knocking down the birdfeeders and leaving unmistakably bearlike deposits to corroborate the neighbors’ sightings: a mother and 2 cubs. The beehives remained untouched so we remained unconcerned, even though we should have known better.

As summers passed and nothing else happened, we stayed (relatively) unconcerned, even though Dan right down the road reported several ursine visits that played hell with his hives.

This year, the Dan reports were scary: a mom and cubs and a singleton, presumably male. In the yard. In the hives. On his porch.

The view through Dan's sunroom window

Dan Connors

View through Dan’s sunroom window

When he chased the solo in his car, lights flashing and horn honking, it retreated to the edge of the woods. When he backed up it emerged, more or less thumbing its snout.

 black bear in the distance

Dan Connors 

And Then it came for us

As Bill wrote to a friend on the 6th of May:

“This morning we awoke to find our beehives and bird feeders all torn asunder.  I had just spent $170 for 2 packages of new bees and they had just released the queens and were just getting settled in their new homes when this happened.

I spent the day rebuilding the hives and installing an electric fence around the hives.  If you hang some bacon on the wires, so we hear, the bears wrap their tongue and lips around it and get a good jolt.. We are eagerly awaiting their shocking bellows.

A mother and two cubs and another solo have been raising havoc in the neighborhood.  DEC said that, since the bees are livestock, I can shoot the bears.  They will give me a permit for and provide me with, rubber buckshot if I wish.  They would also like to come and grab these animals so for to give them a collar…  Once they have good data to justify a hunting season they will allow hunting for them in this county.

In 1990 there were @ 400 bears in the Catskills (across the river). By 2005 the population had grown to 4,000 to 5,000.  @ 500 were taken there last fall….” 

 So far Bill’s fence has not been challenged – or at least we have heard no bellows and the bacon appears undisturbed. (More points for crow smarts? They are expert compost-pickers, ever alert for a bit of protein, but they haven’t come near those wires, even though they should be immune.)

Here are the fence details Bill sent to Dan, should you wish to build a solar powered electric bear deterrent around anything:

“ I went ahead with the more expensive unit (Zareba SP10). It also happened to be just about whatCornell and Bee Culture (via Cornell apiarist) recommend. It puts out just about 5,000 volts and 0.17 joules.

It is good to see it snapping sparks for @ 3/16 inch over the raindrops!!! 

I strung my wires alternating hot (+) and ground (-) with the lowest wire 6″ above the ground and the top wire ground (-) for lightning protection.   Since I used steel posts the ground wires are wrapped directly onto the posts.  I used 12 gauge copper jump wire to connect the hot wires as well as for the lead from the controller. I suspect I could make a slight improvement if I grounded the unit to the steel posts as well as the usual ground rods.


Woodland Peonies, a walk on the wild side

Forty or fifty years ago, the owner of our house planted a LOT of peonies, and by the time we got the place they were huge. Also, in many cases, overtaken by shrubbery.

When we dug the shaded ones to move them we found huge giant knotted rootballs the size of refrigerators. So we divided them and had even more peonies. Three kinds of peonies: dark red, pink and white. (Read more about them – and get some growing tips here)

Theoretically you can’t have too many peonies but I’m here to tell you you can have enough – if they are all the same damn 3 colors. And having a few extra early ones that are magenta does not help, on account of their being magenta.

But we also inherited some fern leaf peonies (read about them – and the lowdown on ants – here) and the fern leafs, more properly Paeonia tenuifolia, were so beautiful and so different they opened an irresistible door.

At least that was my excuse 3 years ago, when I bought a nifty woodland peony at Trade Secrets.

Japanese Woodland Peony, P. japonica. At the time it had I think 4 leaves and zero flowers. It would be nice if this one also developed refrigerator sized roots, but it won’t. As soon as they’re bigger than produce drawers I’m going to divide them.

Those shirred silk petals really knock me out, and the foliage is nothing to sneeze at, either.

Lulled into hubris by this success, I thought last year I could get away with buying a moderately expensive seedling of P. mlokosewitschii, instead of a seriously expensive guaranteed division. The guarantee was that the flower would be pale yellow, a rare color in peonies.

And nonexistent in my plant. I was warned the seedling might turn out to be magenta and you can guess the rest. Bill thinks it’s beautiful. I do not. But the leaves are absolutely gorgeous and the flower is fleeting, so it’s not a total catastrophe.

Seedling of P. mlokosewitschii. The cheapskate’s reward. There is a better picture of a magenta flowered seedling – and one of the real deal – over at my almost neighbor Margaret Roach’s blog, A Way To Garden. But as you can see by comparing the pictures there is a lurking mystery; her seedling’s leaves look so different I’m not sure we have the same plant. (She got hers from Seneca Hill. I got mine from Hillside Nursery.

Next time I head for the hills I’ll pay full freight, though I may have to hock my toes to do it. There are around 2 dozen species peonies that could grow here, and more and more of them are making their way ( expensively) into commerce.


Hot then cold, dry then deluginal then dry again; it’s been a difficult spring. But this year the Northeast is having an excellent morel season, so there is definitely something good to be said, namely

Blonde morels, Morchella esculenta, get ’em while you can.

The place to get them is in open woodlands or hedgerows, where the soil is alkaline. They frequently keep company with dead elms and dying apples (and poison ivy, I’m sorry to say.)

Bill Bakaitis photo
Morels in a typical habitat. Look to the left and back of the one in the middle to see more. They hide.

Field cleaning ( shaking out bugs, trimming dirt from stems) is essential, and it can be enough if the morels are growing through matted leaves or thick new growth. But a lot of them are in sandy spots or open ground where dirt has splashed up. Always carry a separate bag or basket to put the dirty ones in, so they don’t contaminate the rest.

The little heap at left in front are the dirty ones from this expedition. The little heap at the right is trimmings. Morels last a long time in the fridge if you trim off anything nasty before you put them away, loosely wrapped in waxed paper so they can get air without drying up.

When you get this many, they will dry up before you can eat them all. We used to do this on purpose, threading them on string and hanging them in the greenhouse. Morels are thin fleshed and dry quickly, concentrating the flavor. But for the last decade or so we’ve been mostly stewing them in butter and storing them in the freezer. They keep better texture that way and are much more versatile.

Inconvenient Frost, The Cold Side of Global Warming

The frost I feared last week (see below ) was a doozy all right; 25 degrees at 5AM on April 30th. Theoretically, that’s normal. Frost-free date for this area is supposed to be May 10th. What’s abnormal was the whole rest of April, which had very few frosty nights and many days with temperatures in the high 70’s to low 80’s.

That heat produced a premature explosion of new growth, tender young succulent stems, leaves and flowers defenseless against cell bursting ice.

Result? The magnolia of course got trashed – what was left of it. But the plum and apple blossoms were spared and to my everlasting surprise and delight, the Viburnum carlesii came through unscathed, every perfumed petal intact.

However. Carnage was visited upon: a large clump of trumpet lilies, wisteria almost in bud, the Miscanthus ‘giganteus’, which was already going great guns, and a beautiful Japanese maple, new last year, that has been my pride and joy.

It also made mush of the bleeding hearts,

Before frost, under the viburnum.

and heaven help us a peony. Just one, and not too badly, but still. A PEONY! Is nothing safe?

The answer, unfortunately is no. Most of the worry about global warming is focussed on droughts, floods and overhot summers, but there’s more to it than that. Unwanted warmth followed by VERY unwanted cold is going to be a fact of life from here on out. To deal with it:

* Plant new spring bloomers as though they were fruit trees: on a north slope, so heat comes late and frost drains away.

* When you remove winter mulch to avoid smothering fresh shoots, keep the mulch material nearby, so you can rake it back over them if/when frost threatens.

* Resist the temptation to prune the roses. You don’t want to encourage the new growth, and leaving the dead and weak stems in place helps keep frost-produced dieback above the wood you want to keep.

* be sure you have a supply of floating row cover aka spun-bonded crop-protector. It’s much lighter than bedsheets, far easier to use, and although it’s ungreenly made of plastic, it lasts practically forever if you take good care of it. Sources include Pinetree Garden Seeds and Johnny’s Selected Seeds
This doesn’t mean you can turn those sheets to rags; the row cover is only good down to about 28 degrees; if you fear even greater misery, use sheets. Either way, remember the purpose is mostly to trap ground heat; a hat that simply keeps frost from touching tops won’t help unless the frost is very light.

For more tips, see the advice posted last fall; a lot of it is useful at planting time.