Archive for June, 2008

Time to Prune the Spirea

I post this picture of The Heap to warn you of what can happen if you do not prune your old fashioned spirea at least every other year

Spirea x vanhouttei run amok

This Spiraea x vanhouttei was only a little slip of a thing when Lois fobbed it off on me – admittedly quite a while ago. The house is 20 feet wide. The spirea is still on the march. How did this happen? Read More…

Love That Licorice ( and the Toad, too)

licorice plant on holder

It’s fashionable to hate annuals, particularly common annuals like the licorice plant ( Helichrysum petiolare)  that’s spilling along here in front of the clematis. But as stepdaughter Celia says ” Phooey on that.” Read More…

The Squirrel Problem

They’re vegetarian rats, basically. Eat bulbs, empty birdfeeders, gnaw through attic walls to make smelly nests, from which they sally forth to eat the insulation from electric wires. Absolute proof – if we needed any – that good looks can get you a pass on a lot of bad behavior. If they had rat tails instead of those bottle brushes and did not have the habit of sitting up and eating with paw-hands, and

baby squirrels at birdfeeder

if the babies weren’t so damn cute, we’d be a lot farther ahead in squirrel eradication.

And don’t talk to me about dispersing seeds. If I find one more “volunteer ” black walnut with a taproot halfway to China…

Right. So what did we do with this little pair, scarcely larger than the violet leaves, happily playing for half an hour oblivious of dangerous humans only 10 feet away? We ooed and ah’d and elbowed each other and I ran out in my nightie to get photographs.

Bah, Humbug.

We all know the metal baffle does nothing. Taking down the feeder just sets them into the borders to nibble new buds. Any suggestions?

Keeping Track of your Tomatoes

Former scenario:

It’s late August. The tomato rows are solid plant. I’m down on my knees in the jungle, pushing aside the mulch, digging around in the soft earth at the base of a mystery plant. It MUST be here somewhere and when I find it I will know whether the fat juicy sweetsharp tomato we had at lunch was a Brandywine or a Prudens Purple.

tomato stakes with labels attached

No more mysteries.

The place on the pole will be covered too, but the label will still be firmly in place.

tomato label stapled to stakeIf you use wire supports you can use Kristi’s never-fail identification system. Get flat green plastic plant-tying tape, write the name on it with sunproof (!!) permanent marker and tie it to the top wire.


Wood Stove? Fireplace?

split firewood

When firewood suppliers who sell by the cord or truckload say they’re selling dry  wood, they mean the trees were cut down some time ago. They do not mean the wood was fitted: cut to length and split, more than about 5 minutes before it went on the truck. So if you want firewood dry enough to ignite easily and burn cleanly next winter, now is the time to order it and get it stacked out of the weather.  

Failproof Roses

HA! No such thing. But if you want to make sure you don’t buy something like

pink grandiflora rose


  and wind up with something like

climbing rose Dr. Huey 


Read More…

Cold Asparagus Soup


cold asparagus soup with crunchy coins

A smooth puree, accented with tender-crisp asparagus coins. Just the thing for these oxymoronic hot spring days, when it’s officially asparagus season but experientially August. We’ve stopped cutting but I see there’s still reasonably local asparagus in the stores. Read More…

More Mulch!

is almost ( not always) a good thing. But straw isn’t always the best mulch to use.

 It’s ideal for tomatoes 

tomato seedling mulched with straw

 These tomato babies have their bases covered in more ways than one.  

Strawberries, on the other hand, do better when mulched with pine needles, aka pine straw. Pine needles are slightly acid, which strawberries like, and they’re more inclined to lie flat. This is important for very short fruit plants. Fluffy oat and rye straw tend to shade low leaves, and leaves need sun to make sweetness.

pine needle mulch for strawberries

Cool Tomatoes

are the happiest tomatoes. Well, not really. Gentle, consistent warmth is what tomato plants want – not only on their leaves and flowers ( tomato pollen is sterilized by temperatures over 85), but also around their roots, which by the way – news flash! – prefer to stay moist. 

Tomato Planting Tips

By now your seedlings are probably planted, so it’s too late (for this year) to say the first line of defense is deep planting – set the baby so 1/3 to 1/2 of the stem is underground. Useful new roots will form all along the buried portion.

I used to think it was important to remove leaves and suckers before burial.  Bill made fun of me. We did a side by side experiment. He was right; didn’t matter a whit. One less thing. 

Ok. They’re in there. Now what? Two things

1. Mulch, really a lot of mulch. We use a thin layer of newspaper – just one fold – under a largish pile of straw. This holds moisture in the soil and helps keep roots from frying. I put my hand down on the uncovered earth when I was weeding yesterday and it was HOT. Not warm. Hot. Not good.

mulching tomatoes with paper and strawTomato mulching in progress. The brown paper grocery bags are a thicker weed (and water) barrier. Helpful if your raised beds are really raised. These are about a foot above the paths. 


2. Limb them up. If you have no problems with fungus diseases you can stop right here, but if blight has ever visited you, read on. 

tomato seedling with lower leaves removed

 The scar is difficult to find, but if you look closely at the left side of the stem you’ll see the scar where a branch used to be.

Removing lower leaves and suckers so the stem is naked at the base accomplishes two things:

1. It provides good air circulation, an absolute necessity ( crowding is the mother of disease).

2. It deprives the fungus spores of handy landing spots from which to travel upward. In theory, a timely application of mulch will block spores so they cannot splash up. In practice, it helps but not enough to be relied on exclusively.


Some Early Peonies

 Actually, one of the earliest isn’t a peony – and it’s late: it’s a peony flowered tulip, one of the last to bloom.

Mt. Tacoma peony flowered tulip

Kristi Niedermann

This photo of ‘Mount Tacoma’ was taken just a couple of days ago in Maine, where the peonies themselves are still a (semi) distant promise. 

Here in the Hudson Valley – functionally about 2 weeks south – the real deal is starting to pop, beginning as usual with one of our inherited mysteries.

mystery double magenta peony, possibly 'Cincinnati'

 It looks a lot like ‘Cincinnati’. But ‘Cincinnati’ is midseason and this is among the earliest lactifloras to open. ‘Magenta Moon’ seemed likely until I looked up the date (on the Peony Checklist , provided by The American Peony Society). No good. ‘Magenta Moon’ didn’t rise until 1995, by which time the peony had been in place at least 15 years.

Truth is I haven’t done much research –  scrolling though peony pictures is far too dangerous. No matter how swiftly you move the cursor, to look at peonies is to want peonies, especially at places like Klehm’s and La Pivoinerie D’Aoust,

One good thing about peony lust is that it tends to supplant tulip lust, so I probably shouldn’t mention it, but here’s an aspect of ‘Mount Tacoma’ that isn’t part of the usual descriptions: Given very well drained soil and not too much fertilizer it comes back – at least in Maine, where mine have been returning faithfully for at least a decade.

More often than not the deer eat them (that’s why I stopped planting more in 1997) but that’s no knock on their longevity. ‘Mount Tacoma’ was introduced in 1924 and is still one of the most common whites, available almost everywhere, but just for the record I got mine from Scheepers.