Books, Tools and Equipment

Spectacular Seed

and pollen images like this

"seed of the Paulownia tree"

"seed of the Paulownia tree"

are just a microscopic part of  The Kew Millenium Seed Bank Project, a major player in the worldwide effort to save endangered plant species.

The  picture here was airily downloaded from a slide show of 18 gorgeous images  published by The Guardian; and the news that it was up there came from Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish

Simple, Easy Trellises – for peas, beans and tomatoes

That’s “trellis” as in “utilitarian structure that holds up annual vines and comes down at the end of the season,” and the way we build them is with simple uprights and really a lot of untreated twine.

pole beans on sapling trellis, woods left and straight ahead

pole beans on sapling trellis, woods left and straight ahead

In Maine, we use saplings from the surrounding woods – they’re handy, they’re free, and because they’re nothing more than little trees they tie the riotous, colorful garden to its wild environment.

string and sapling trellis (please ignore oak post in foreground)

string and sapling trellis (please ignore oak posts in foreground)

This bean trellis was created by Kristi, who had evidently gotten bored with just running vertical lines. Beans would rather go up but will travel horizontally if encouraged. The spiderweb was completely covered about 2 weeks from this picture.

In New York, where there’s no convenient sapling source and the garden is if not formal at least orderly, we use 8 foot oak 2×2’s. Read More…

Garden Books: Our Life In Gardens

By Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd, illustrated by Bobbi Angell (with the accuracy, sensitivity and elegance she always brought – full disclosure – to our collaboration at the New York Times Garden Q&A.)


This is the first page of the first chapter; you’ll be seeing the cover all over the place if you haven’t seen it already.

When Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd decided to call their third book Our Life in Gardens, they probably didn’t mean “our” to include everyone who ever fell for a plant. But that’s the way they made me feel.

No matter that my gardens will never be a patch on theirs, that they have taken zone defiance beyond art into legerdemain and amassed a collection of rare plants that puts most public gardens to shame, they share discoveries, admit obsessions and air plenty of strong opinions as though their readers were their equals on a level playing field of horticultural passion. Read More…

Internet Garden Catalogs – the missing Link

In the old days ( like before about 2005), seed and nursery catalogs were glossy shopping magazines. They came unbidden in the mail just when you were sick to death of winter, bearing page after page of enticing close ups: brilliantly colored trumpets and daisies, clusters of nodding bells and panicles of jewel-drops,  all  guaranteed to make you forget that your garden was not the size of Versailles. 

Cosmos bipinnatus 'Double Click'

Cosmos bipinnatus 'Double Click'

Understandable. Closeup photos are the easiest to take, for one thing. Plus we know from the garden center in spring that nothing sells as well as eye candy. Add the fact that printing and postage are big expenses, and it’s no wonder the mail box wish books cut right to the chase. 

But on the net, production costs are the same for one catalog or ten million; distribution is dirt cheap and space limitations have no meaning (let’s hear it for links!).   

 So why do we see mostly this:

Lupine 'Morello Cherry,'

Lupine 'Morello Cherry,'

and nothing else?

Read More…

Tool Care Time ( Better Late than Even Later)

This was a day of cold and high wind: trees and tall grasses swaying, the black mesh deer fence rippling in waves, a low roar waxing and waning outside the office window, which being old kept admitting the sort of drafts that make you think of Dickens. Snow coming tonight, with wind chills we will not discuss.

But just last Sunday it was above 60, the moving air a balmy breeze, the kind of day that says “come out and garden,” even though there’s frost below the mud and a lot of dream-over-catalogs-duty between here and the bloom of the harebell

Hensol Harebell, a favorite columbine

Hensol Harebell, a favorite columbine

Yet if all the early pruning is done, if it’s too snowy to rake and the holiday evergreenery has already been laid protectively over the sleeping perennial beds, what exactly is there to do?

I don’t know about you, but what I did was tidy the (temporarily) pleasant to occupy garden shed.

In some ideal universe, that task has also been accomplished: all tools were cleaned and sharpened in fall. Every size pot was neatly stacked, Read More…

Perfect Snap Peas – and a Perfect Harvest Basket

The peas are something I’ve taken for granted for a long time now, because classic Sugar Snaps never seem to fail. Good years and bad, those tall, late-bearing vines always come through with about 6 weeks of perfect snap peas: crisp, juicy and sweet. And twenty feet of double row pretty much guarantees enough. In good years, we give a lot away, and even in poor years like this one we still have plenty. 5 day\'s worth of snap peas How much is plenty? I never measured before, but we just had an opportunity to check it out –  Read More…

Photographing the Garden

Kristi the demon camerawoman was just complaining about it yesterday, so I know I’m not alone when I say

iris , probably louisiana

closeups are easy.

philadelphus flower closeup

and mugshots present few problems

view of cutting garden from side yard

while landscapes are difficult

beans and lettuce with lily

And anything in the middle is just about impossible

Yet the urge to photograph persists, along with the urge to get back to gardening and not be endlessly messing around with the equipment. Read More…

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.

Sweeping Up The Leaves

No doubt about it, backyard leaf blowers are powerful players in the anti-social sweepstakes. Although they’ll never be as good as ATVs at damaging land while abetting childhood obesity and shattering the public peace, pound for pound they’re unbeatable for noise pollution, noxious emissions, and the erosion of ordinary civility.

On the other hand, there’s also no doubt that raking is the yard work equivalent of ironing, possibly because it’s equally taxing on the back. Even people who love gardening hate raking, even my friend and helper Kristi, a woman up for ANY outdoor task that doesn’t involve chemicals or power tools.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when she looked at the leaf-covered Maine lawn, looked at me ( I was holding 2 rakes) and said “ I wish you had a leaf sweeper.”

“ A what?”

Next thing you know, she’d gone home and gotten hers. Turns out the hand powered leaf sweeper is the autumnal third way: a leaf gathering machine that taxes neither the body nor the environment. It looks and works about like a lawn mower except that instead of blades it has brushes. Push it along and the brushes sweep leaves up and back into a collecting sling that holds about 7 cubic feet and is very easy to empty.

Kristi’s is a 26 inch Agri-Fab which sells for around 135 bucks. There are other, ostensibly sturdier, brands but differences – except in price – appear to be pretty minor.

Good Things about hand powered leaf sweepers:

* Easy to use, after you practice for a while and learn best adjustments of brush height and handle-angle.

* Quiet, only a gentle whirr and the whoosh of leaves headed for the sling.

* Useful for other kinds of picking-up. Kristi takes hers onto the drive through her pine woods to collect the needles we use to mulch strawberries and pack dahlias.

* Comparatively inexpensive, even the deluxe 31 inch model sold by People Powered Machines is only $270.00 ( I know, I know; but it’s 2 or 3 times faster than raking and far less ache-producing.)

The Nothing is Perfect part:

* Forget it if your lawn is mostly uneven, with many little hills and minor undulations. Kristi’s works great at her place, which is more or less flat. Not great at our place, a festival of irregularity.

* Seven cubic feet is not a lot if you have a lot of leaves. Kristi puts a sheet at the edge of each lawn section and empties the collector into it several times before gathering the sheet edges and hauling the contents to the leaf pile.

Just a bit of autumnal eye candy; the leaf sweeper is on view at the sales sites and is not a thing of beauty. Chrysanthemums like these are easy to grow, about which more next spring when it’s time to order rooted cuttings.

Bees and Honey


The well furnished home food garden has always and still should include at least one hive of honeybees. But this is easier said than done, so learning that bees were part of Bill’s dowry may have been the thing that clinched the deal, back when we were courting. Fast forward 16 honeyed years: I’m writing a N.Y. Times bee story and in the course of research discover – who knew? – that this little insect may well be the canary in the agricultural coal mine.

Honeybees don’t get much press compared to, say, petroleum, but their pollination services are just as crucial as fuel and fertilizer to about 15 billion dollars a year in crops, from almonds and alfalfa to sunflower seeds. More bees are needed in each place than any one place could provide, so tens of thousands of hives get loaded on trucks, taken to fields or orchards in bloom, then packed up again and hauled elsewhere.

These migratory honeybees are essential to agribusiness monocropping, which could not exist if it had to depend on local pollinators. That’s why the bees have been getting their 15 minutes of fame* – a mysterious affliction called CCD ( colony collapse disorder) has destroyed so many colonies it’s threatening a major industry. Farmers are paying much higher prices for hive rental while also worrying there may be shortages that can’t be overcome, even with expensive imports.

More than you really want to know is posted, with running updates at, but the very short version is:

*CCD probably isn’t new; reports of similar, albeit far smaller, epidemics go back at least as far as 1898.

* CCD is almost surely not one disease or pest or insecticide but rather some unknown combo thereof that exploits the weakness of bees stressed by profoundly unnatural ways of being kept and used. No study has yet revealed a single insult that is/was the tipping point. Each time a likely culprit is fingered, further investigation confirms that it is at best only part of the puzzle.

* Domestic honeybees are livestock: living creatures raised and used by humans. What do we know about them compared to what we know about chickens and cows? Zilch. What are we likely to learn soon? Also zilch, in part because there is no massive bee industry to lobby for public funds or undertake its own research.

The internet allows posts like this to go on at enormous length, but that doesn’t mean they should, so here are a few visuals from our own

Home Grown Honey Harvest, October 7, 2007

Bill checks to see if there’s any honey in the frame ( a pre-built foundation for the bees to start from).

I always thought smoke made the bees think the hive was on fire, so they were too busy worrying about the house to sting anybody. Beekeepers just say it calms them, with the same result.

They don’t stay calm long; you have to extract the honey someplace they can’t get to, in this case the barn.

This is Bill’s honey extractor, a galvanized antique called the Root Novice. Modern extractors are steel or plastic and this is probably the place to say that honey is more or less self-sterilizing. It’s so sweet bacteria can’t grow in it and so low in water content yeasts won’t grow either. The reason you can’t give it to babies is that it can contain spores of anaerobic bacteria like botulism. The acid in all human digestive systems that process solid food prevents those spores from growing, but new people who still drink all their nourishment don’t have that protection.

After each cell is filled with honey, the bees cap it with a wax lid. You have to slice off the lids (with a wicked sharp, thin-bladed knife) before you can extract the honey.

Bees gather honey from one source at a time. If you want to name the honey for its source – check out the list at – you have to harvest it before the bees move on. The dark patch looks sort of like buckwheat but I’m sure it’s not. Doesn’t matter, whatever it is will just add complexity to this year’s vintage.

Frames are held upright by arms in the extractor. Turn the crank and the arms whirl around, flinging the honey out by centrifugal force, same as in a salad spinner.

Honey isn’t the only thing that gets flung; the colander catches things like stray bits of wax and the occasional unfortunate bee that didn’t respond to the smoke.

After collection, the honey is poured into sterilized jars. Over the next couple of weeks, any tiny impurities rise and form a thin layer at the top. For gift-giving, we take the layer off. For us, we just leave it as an extra seal until we want to use the honey.

Before the equipment is washed and stored, it’s put outdoors for the bees to clean. They will retrieve almost all of the honey to add to their winter stores.

* Fifteen minutes seems to be about right. Bees are as gone from the headlines as they are from all those dead hives. Tune in next February for a brief flare-up, when almond orchards will need a surge from an army so grievously depleted it may not have enough troops.