Getting the garden ready

As the saying goes, “spring has sprung.” In my garden, daffodils are blooming and tulips are on the way. My peas are planted. But how do you know when to plant your veggies and tender annual flowers? It’s not just about the last frost of the spring. You need to think about which plants can survive and thrive in cold, wet soil and which would rather wait to get planted until late May or even mid-June.

In the vegetable garden, tomatoes, peppers and eggplants are the prima donnas. I generally wait until June 10 at 9 a.m. to plant them. Or something like that. I shape up my wide raised beds well before I plant, allowing the soil to dry out and get warmed up. I rake off the straw or leaves I used to protect the soil from erosion over the winter. I like to work in aged compost well before planting time.

Peas and spinach are very cold-hardy and can survive frosts. Root crops like carrots, beets, onions and potatoes prefer warm soil for growing but will tolerate cool soils and won’t get killed by a late frost even if their leaves are up. But in my opinion almost any plant would prefer to grow in soil that is at least 50 degrees.

Whether you start your tomato seedlings indoors or buy plants from a garden center, you should “harden them off.” They need to be introduced to sun and wind in small doses at first so they don’t get sunburned or dehydrated after being pampered for weeks in a greenhouse or on a kitchen windowsill. This process will take five days or so, but if you don’t do it you will either kill your baby peppers or stunt their growth for two weeks or more while they recover.

Start by putting your plants outside in a place protected from the wind that only gets morning sun. Give them two hours of morning sun the first day, then bring them back inside or well out of the sun’s rays. Increase the time outside each day and by Day 3 give them some afternoon sun too. On Day 5 they should be OK outside all day, and after that you can plant them.

What about fertilizer? I generally don’t give annual flowers like cosmos or zinnias any at all. Soluble nitrogen found in chemical fertilizers will make them grow tall but delay flowering. Of the vegetables, only peppers need no fertilizer, but in my opinion no vegetables should get chemicals of any kind, including fertilizer and pesticides.

Newly planted seedlings and seeds need to be kept in lightly moist soil. A seedling that cracks open its husk to send up a shoot may not make it to the soil surface if the soil is too dry. So check your garden every day. And if your tomato starts to look limp or drooping, water immediately — even if it means going to work late. Just email me; I’ll send an excuse to your boss to keep you out of trouble.

There are many ways to keep your plants lightly moist in the vegetable or flower garden. One way is to set up a drip irrigation system. I’ve had good luck installing soaker hoses — rubber hoses that leak slowly through pores. I’ve bought the “Snip and Drip” system from Gardener’s Supply.

The basic kit comes with the hose and T-junctions and fittings to install it. Then, if you buy a watering timer the system will come on a schedule you determine. I’ve used many types of timers during my time as a garden designer and installer. My advice? Get the simplest one you can get.

What about rototillers? Should you rent or buy one, or not? I used one for years until someone more knowledgeable than me explained why he didn’t: Rototillers seriously disturb the microbes in the soil. They break up useful fungal networks that support your plants. They make a bed clean and neat, but in fact have only sliced up the weeds and buried them. One invasive root becomes multiple roots and can move them farther from their initial location. I have a friend who rototilled a small patch of horseradish and turned the bed into a large bed full of horseradish he could never eliminate.

I no longer recommend rototillers. Photo by Henry Homeyer.

So how do I prepare my soil? I use a five-tined old-fashioned potato rake that loosens the soil as I pull it through the soil. Or you can use an ordinary garden fork to loosen the soil if it is a heavy clay, and then finish it off at planting time with a good hand tool like a CobraHead weeder. You can use a hoe to pull soil from the walkways up to form mounded beds. And as you improve your soil with compost each year it will get easier to prepare nice, fluffy beds rich in organic matter.

Gardening is fun. It is rewarding, too: Tomatoes and lettuce taste better when eaten the day they were picked. The exercise will make you healthy, too. Just don’t work so hard you get blisters and sunburn. Ease yourself into gardening — just like you harden off your plants.

Henry is an organic gardener who has been fussing around in gardens for about 75 years. He is the author of four gardening books. His email is henry.homeyer@comcast.net.

Featured photo: This kale was started indoors on Feb. 22 and needs to be hardened off before going in the ground in early May. Photo by Henry Homeyer.

A year in the garden

As we begin 2024 I think it is good not only to look back but also to plan ahead. We can’t know if we’ll be facing hot and dry or wet and soggy this summer, or perfect conditions. But we can make plans and hope for the best.

For many of us 2023 was a disappointment. The summer was rainy much of the time. Vegetables like tomatoes and potatoes — vegetables that require lots of energy to build fruit or tubers — did not do well. Fungal diseases like late blight are most virulent with moist conditions, which we had in spades. And in my part of the world there was a late frost that spoiled the blossoms on our fruit trees — so no apples or pears. Sigh.

On the other hand, it was a great summer for newly planted trees and shrubs. I planted yet another pawpaw tree this summer, along with a fringe tree, an American hazelnut and a gooseberry. The soil stayed moist all summer from the rain, and all have done well.

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is a native fruit tree that is common in the woods of Pennsylvania and Ohio. The fruit is almost tropical in flavor, sometimes compared to a mix of mango and banana flavors. The trees are rated hardy to Zone 5 (minus 20 degrees F), but I have had one survive much colder temperatures — and another that died in a cold winter.

I have one pawpaw tree that is now 20 feet tall and 10 years old or more, but I am yet to get any fruit from it, despite the fact that it has blossomed. Apparently they are self-sterile, so in the past three years I have been planting new trees from different sources. Pawpaws send up root suckers, but these are genetic clones and not suitable for pollinating the mother tree.

A few thoughts about planting trees: First, preferentially choose trees and shrubs that are native to New England — or the United States. These are best for our birds and pollinators. And no, that doesn’t mean you should deprive yourself of the beauty of a Merrill or Jane magnolia. I just want to suggest a 90:10 or 80:20 ratio of natives to imported or hybridized varieties.

Secondly, if you plant trees in spring or summer, you must water during dry times. Fall is usually wet enough. A newly planted tree needs 5 gallons of water once a week distributed in a wide circle around it. A 2-inch layer of mulch will help minimize drying on hot August days and keep the mowers and string trimmers at bay. Mulch will also minimize weeds that compete for nutrients and water.

Some gardeners focus on growing vegetables, others on flowers. I want both. I started as a vegetable gardener, largely because there is little better in life than biting into a home-grown tomato warm from the sun. I grow heirloom tomatoes like Brandywine, Cherokee Purple and Ox Heart, but I also plant hybrids like Sungold, my favorite cherry tomato, and Defiant, which is resistant to some diseases.

If you grow open pollinated (heirloom) tomatoes, you can save a few seeds each year and dry them on a paper towel. Store them in a cool dark location and they will serve you well if you want to start your own seedlings, starting indoors in early April. But don’t save hybrid seeds,. as most will not breed true.

One of my readers wrote me this fall reminding me of something I wrote long ago: “I will make it through another winter because I want to see what else did.” It’s true. I can’t let age catch up with me because I want to see the annual show: snowdrops blooming in March; my Merrill magnolia, which blooms each year with 1,000 double white blossoms on my birthday in April; and the Japanese primroses — 500 to 1,000 of them beginning in May and lasting until mid-June.

My advice about planting flowers is simple: Grow what you love. Grow what your Grammie and mother grew. Grow what stops you in your tracks when you see if for the first time each season. Plant more of your favorites each year, or divide them and spread them out to new corners of the property. But keep it simple: Don’t plant so much that weeding becomes a dreaded chore.

I love arranging flowers and keep a vase of my own cut flowers on the table from March until after Halloween. You can do this if you plant lots of bulbs for early spring, your favorite perennials, and very importantly, this: plant annual flowers. Annual flowers keep on blooming all summer if you keep them from going to seed.

It’s easy to buy six-packs of annuals in spring and plant them in your perennial beds as well as in your vegetable garden. Most like full sun or part sun/part shade. And don’t fertilize annuals in the garden — too much nitrogen promotes leafy growth but delays flowering. Potted annuals do need some fertilizer as the fertilizer in potting mix is water-soluble and gets used up or washes away.

Remember, as you ponder your plans for a garden while looking at a snowy landscape, that gardening should be fun. My garden is my respite. It’s where I go when the world is too much with me. So do some planning now. And dream.

Henry’s column will appear about once a month this winter. Reach him at henry.homeyer@comcast.net or PO Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746.

Featured photo: Gomphrena, an annual, is great in arrangements. Photo by Henry Homeyer.

Holiday gifts for the gardener 2023

Give the kids a wheelbarrow and a shovel

Once again it is time to find the perfect gifts for your loved ones. Gardeners are easy to shop for because there are so many good things to shop for, and they will probably be pleased with whatever you choose. As a shopper I always try to support local, family owned businesses — they support our community and I want to support them when possible. Let’s take a look at some ideas.

Think about buying tickets for you and your gardening friend to a special garden or perhaps one of the spring flower shows. This will allow the two of you to have some time together and to get some ideas about what you both can do in your gardens. One of my favorite gardens is Bedrock Garden in Lee, New Hampshire. This garden was developed by plant guru Jill Nooney and her husband, Bob Munger, over a 25-year period and recently achieved 501(c)3 status as a nonprofit. Not only does it have a fabulous collection of plants; Jill is a sculptor and welder who has created art that is displayed in the gardens. This is truly a gem of a place and worthy of visits. Suggested donation of $15. See their website for schedules.

Another garden I love is Saint Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, New Hampshire. Augustus Saint Gaudens was a world-known sculptor who lived and worked there in the early 20th century. The well-maintained formal gardens and grounds are enhanced by his fabulous life-size (or larger) bronze sculptures. The grounds are open year-round and the galleries are open from Memorial Day weekend through Oct. 31. Admission is $10 and is valid for seven days.

Of the spring flower shows, the Connecticut show in Hartford is probably the biggest in New England, and well worth a visit. It will be Feb. 22 to Feb. 25 in 2024 and although tickets are not yet on sale you can make up a nice card inviting your gardening buddy to go with you.

Garden tools are generally a hit. On my second birthday I was given a child-sized wheelbarrow, a watering can and a shovel, all of which helped form me as a life-time gardener. Most garden centers sell good-quality tools for kids made of metal, not plastic. See what you can find for a small person in your life.

Adults like tools, too. For 20 years now I’ve had a Smart Cart, a well-balanced two-wheel cart. The frame is made of airplane-grade tubular aluminum and the 7-cubic-foot body of heavy-duty plastic. It comes either with bike-type wheels or smaller, fatter wheels capable of traversing wet areas more easily and carrying heavier loads. I chose the wide wheels, which make the cart rated for 600 pounds. The narrower wheels are rated for 400 pounds. I’ve never had a flat tire and the cart has served me well. The bin pops out if you want to wash a dog in it or carry home manure in your Subaru. It is not inexpensive but worth the investment.

My favorite weeder is the CobraHead weeder, a single-tine, curved hook that teases out roots with ease and precision. It has become an extension of my body — I use it for planting, weeding and more. About $29 and available not only online but also from good garden centers and seed companies everywhere.

Although there may be no better mousetrap to invent, amazingly there is a new design to the shovel, one called the Root Slayer. It is all one piece of steel; it has a straight leading edge that comes sharp and stays sharp. The edges are serrated and able to slice through roots like a hot knife through butter. Great for planting in the woods or near trees. I still use my regular shovel or spade for digging in my garden or filling a wheelbarrow with compost. But if I want to plant a tree in a field, it is great for slicing through sod. I use it for dividing big clumps of daylilies and other tough perennials. It’s available at good garden centers.

I know most of you probably keep track of garden events on your phone — things like when you planted lettuce seeds or when your delphinium bloom. I don’t. I like an old-fashioned journal I can write in with a pen. Blank books are readily available, and some companies even sell special garden journals. Gardening is a slow and thoughtful pastime and lends itself to the handwritten word.

If you know that your gift recipient starts seeds in the spring, or plans to, you might consider getting an electric heat mat as a gift. They considerably speed up the time needed for germination of weeds in the spring, So, for example, corn seeds can take two or three weeks to germinate in cold, wet soil but will pop up in three to five days when on a heat mat. Of course you then have to transplant the seedlings, but that is not bad for a small patch. I generally use a planting flat with 98 cells for corn and transplant them when they have leaves 2 inches tall.

If deer are a problem, some garlic-oil clips will add some protection in winter for your tasty trees and shrubs. I’ve had excellent luck with them, specifically with a brand called “Plant Pro-Tec Deer and Rabbit Repellent.” They come in a package of 25 for about a dollar each and seem to last all winter. They are advertised as working for six to eight months. Of course, depending on how hungry the deer are, they may not be 100 percent effective.

Seeds are great gifts and serve well as stocking stuffers. If you save heirloom tomato or flower seeds, you can package up some of your favorites for a friend, along with a good description. And you can give a nice houseplant, particularly one in bloom. But most of us already have all the houseplants we need.

Lastly, books are great gifts for gardeners, especially now, in winter, when we have time on our hands. If I could select just one book, I’d pickEssential Native Trees and Shrubs for the Eastern United Statesby Tony Dove and Ginger Woolridge (2018, Imagine, Bunker Hill Studio Books, $35 hardback). I’m totally behind the movement to plant native plants to support our birds, pollinators and wildlife and this book will answer all your questions — which plants are attractive to deer, salt-tolerant, good for poor soils and much more. It has excellent photos.

Enjoy picking good gardening gifts as you play Santa this year. Your loved ones will love you even more.

Henry is writing just one gardening article per month this winter. You may reach him at PO Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746 or by email at henry.homeyer@comcast.net.

Featured photo: I’ve had this Smart Cart for 20 years. Photo by Henry Homeyer.

Reflections on 25 years of writing a gardening column

Take time to sit and enjoy your garden

On Nov. 8, 1998, my first gardening column appeared in my hometown paper, The Valley News of West Lebanon, New Hampshire. Since then I have written more than 1,200 weekly columns and answered countless questions from readers. I am 77 years old and plan to slow down a bit — I’ll be writing just one column per month this winter, and perhaps two a month after that. We’ll see.

I’ve learned a lot during that time, interviewed plenty of interesting gardeners, and visited (and written about) great gardens in New England and further afield. Thank you, dear readers, for sending me suggestions, asking questions and generally keeping me on my toes. Early on I wrote about digging in the dirt and got an irate email from a reader: “It’s not dirt,” she wrote. “It’s soil. It’s what makes a garden work well. Dirt is what you sweep up.” Later, during an election campaign, another reader told me to shut up about politics and write about what I know, gardening. As I said, you have kept me in line all these years.

My favorite interview was with Ray Magliozzi of public radio’s Car Talk. He lives in a suburb of Boston and has a simple but elegant garden of rhododendrons, roses, dahlias and a tropical called Datura or Angel’s Trumpet. He has the same quirky sense of humor and boisterous laugh in the garden that he has on the radio. I asked him if there was a common thread between gardening and working on cars. Quickly he answered with a full belly laugh: “Dirt. But garden dirt washes off more easily. The reason I love gardening is that I love getting my hands dirty. When we fix cars, it’s not all science. There’s an art to it, too.”

Who else? The White House Gardener, Dale Haney. Tasha Tudor, the reclusive artist and gardener living in southern Vermont. Jean and Weston Cate, octogenarians who introduced me to the Seed Savers Exchange and the Boston Marrow Squash, a winter squash that they told me was the most popular squash grown in America in the 1850s — and still grown by them. And I interviewed and became friends with Sydney Eddison, a fabulous garden writer who when I called her recently had just come in from re-building a stone wall, even though she is now in her 90s. Gardeners do seem to last a long time.

I love the letters and emails of you readers and wish I had saved them all. Here’s part of one that I got recently that might interest you: What to do about the dreaded Asian jumping worm? “I sprinkled the tea seed meal (using my hand fertilizer spreader) and within a week (after a light rainfall which surely helped the process) the worms came to the surface (ick) and died. It would be lovely if they just stayed in the ground, but it was also gratifying to see that the tea seed meal actually worked! I have been told that they lay eggs this time of year so I will begin the process anew next spring.” This reader told me that she bought it at her local feed-and-grain store. She used 50 pounds for her lawn and gardens — about half an acre. The worms die in winter and hatch in early summer, so I may try it as soon as I see them next summer. That said, I must warn you that even though this is a natural, organic product, it can have negative effects on fish and amphibians. Do your research, and I will, too. To be continued.

What else have I learned as part of my experience writing a column? Although I had been a gardener since I was a toddler and learned how to grow veggies and flowers from my Grampy, I took classes to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. I went to Vermont Technical College in Randolph, Vermont, and took classes, including a great one about all the trees and shrubs that do well in our climatic zone. I already knew all the native trees that grow in Connecticut (where I grew up), but few shrubs and virtually no unusual decorative trees.

I took the Master Gardener course in New Hampshire, and that taught me lots of technical details about things like lawn care, insects and diseases, and lots more that I had never focused on. I drove 60 miles each way for 10 weeks to Concord, New Hampshire, where I spent half a day taking classes. And I committed to helping teach others in my community, which I have been doing ever since. And it helped expand my knowledge for the column. I continue to take seminars given by experts whenever I can.

Writing a column also gave me a great excuse to buy plants. I needed to know, for example, if Toadlily or Himalayan blue poppy would do well here, and what they needed to succeed. I learned to buy perennials in groups of three or five — to make a bold statement, or to try in various locations.

I needed to learn how to design a beautiful landscape with flowers, trees and shrubs. All that was part of my education. I now grow about 200 kinds of flowers and nearly 100 kinds of trees and shrubs. I’ve written about the ones that thrived — and the ones I’ve killed.

Eventually I learned not to buy plants unless I already have a place in mind where I might plant them. OK, I fib a little there. I am a sucker for beautiful flowers in bloom, and will buy them — and make a place for them somewhere!

What is my advice to you after all these years? Never get discouraged or give up. But also don’t bite off too much work. Start small and increase your gardens, one bed at a time. Stay true to using organic practices: Chemicals disrupt the natural balance of nature. Make a long-term plan for your garden if you can. Establish sight lines and pathways, and create small “rooms” in the garden. Plant trees early on — they take the longest to reach maturity. And when you reach my age, those trees can be magnificent. I planted several in 1972 that please me every time I think about them. Lastly, take time to sit down and enjoy your garden. You deserve to do so every day of the year.

I’d love to hear from you, dear reader. Is there an article that you remember best, or one you clipped and still refer to? I’m at henry.homeyer@comcast.net or PO Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746. Thanks!

Featured photo: Branch collar to left of line drawn shows where to prune a branch. Photo by Henry Homeyer.

Late fall chores in the garden

Free the trunk flare!

For many of us November is a drab and dreary month: days are short, gray skies the norm. Flowers are largely gone, the soil is soggy and a drizzle or a downpour is common. Soon snow will not be unusual — we’ve already seen a wintry mix. But there are things you can do when the sun comes out — or with rain gear on.

If you planted trees in the past few years, you should look at them carefully. Most planting tags on purchased trees tell you to plant them at the depth they are in the pot. Unfortunately, many trees are grown on huge farms and slapped into pots without regard to the “trunk flare” — that part of the tree that should be above ground.

Look at a mature tree planted by mother nature — or a squirrel. You will see that the base of the tree widens out, and often roots are seen snaking across the soil near the tree for a while before diving down to seek nutrients and moisture. When planting a tree it is essential that the trunk flare be above ground. If it’s not, soil fungi will rot the bark and eventually kill the cambium layer below it. This will kill the tree in six to 10 years. Even if the bark looks flaky and damaged, it probably will recover if you take action now.

If the tree you planted comes straight out of the ground like a telephone pole, or if there is mulch piled up against the tree, you must remove the material that will cause problems.

Mulch is easy to fix. Take your hand and pull it back, creating a doughnut hole for the trunk, at least 4 inches all around. Mulch has its place; it will keep down weeds and help prevent the soil from drying out in times of drought. But more than 4 inches of mulch can also prevent light rains from reaching the roots. Don’t overdo it. No mulch volcanoes. I’ve been seen removing mulch from trees in public spaces!

If there is soil over the trunk flare, use a hand tool to loosen the soil and pull it back, too. You may find little roots there, but cut them off. Re-grade the area for a foot or more around the tree in all directions. For a larger tree that was sold in a burlap wrapping, it is not uncommon to find 3 to 6 inches of soil over the trunk flare. The burlap wrapping — now often made of plastic materials — should have been removed at planting time. If not, your tree is doomed. Plastic wrapping will never degrade, so you need to dig up the tree and remove it now. Burlap will degrade in time, but often not for years.

What else is there to do in the garden now? This is a good time to move shrubs or small trees that are not doing well where they are. Roots do most of their growth between the time leaves drop and the time the ground freezes, which makes this a good time for moving them. Cool temperatures and rainy days help plants you move now, too.

I was visiting long-time friends in Ohio recently, and they had three fothergilla shrubs that had been in the ground five years and done almost nothing. I took a garden fork, thrust it into the soil nearby and tipped it back. Out popped the root ball, as if it had been planted the day before. I picked it up and took a look. Clearly the shrub had been in a one-gallon pot for a long time before they planted it. The roots had grown around and around the pot, keeping them from extending out into neighboring soil for moisture and minerals.

After soaking the root ball in a pail of water, I used my fingers, a small folding saw and a CobraHead weeder to tease the roots apart. I broke or cut some, but it didn’t matter. The shrubs were doomed unless I could get the roots pointed out and away from the tangled mess they’d been in. I replanted them in places with more sunshine and less competition from big perennials in beds where they should grow and be happy. It may take a year or two before they really start to thrive.

It’s tough to know just where to plant a tree or shrub for optimal growth. I like to observe the same species in another garden or ask a friend if they’ve had luck with the same species. The internet can help if you consult a university or arboretum website. I like books, too, especially any written by Michael Dirr. He seems to know more than anyone else. So do your homework, and think about moving any unhappy woody plants.

By the way, it’s not too late to plant spring bulbs, garlic or bulbs for forcing in pots. I particularly like forcing spring bulbs (daffodils, tulips, crocus and more) by potting them up now and keeping them in a cold place where they won’t freeze. Then in February and March I bring them into the warmth of the house, and they bloom early. I pot up enough to give some away to ailing or aged friends.

This is a good time to dig out invasive shrubs like burning bush or barberry that have been planted by birds. Their distinctive leaf color will help you find them now in your woods.

On the next to last day of October this year I plugged in my blue “fairy lights” in my Merrill magnolia and a nice pear tree. It was a gloomy, wet day, and the blue lights looked great against the yellow leaves. Some people call these Christmas or holiday lights, but I consider them just a cheerful boost to my spirits when gardening is nearly done and weather keeps me from doing my final chores.

Henry is a UNH Master Gardener, a regular speaker at garden clubs and libraries, and the author of four gardening books. Reach him by e-mail at henry.homeyer@comcast.net.

Featured photo: Branch collar to left of line drawn shows where to prune a branch. Photo by Henry Homeyer.

Fall pruning

A few bold cuts can transform a tree or shrub

I asked an experienced arborist the other day what he thought about pruning apple trees in the fall. His answer was the same as mine: “Prune when you have time and the pruners in your hand.” Yes, March is a good time to prune, but I suspect that farmers started the tradition of pruning their orchards then because it was too early to plow or plant, and they were suffering from cabin fever. Over the years, I have pruned most sorts of trees in the fall, winter, spring and summer — and seen no adverse effects. I particularly like to prune in the fall after leaf drop, as one can see clearly the shape of the shrub or tree.

Plants that bloom early in spring or summer have already formed buds for next year. Early bloomers include fruit trees, forsythia, lilac, magnolia, fothergilla, viburnums, rhododendrons, azaleas and many more. Right now you can see big fat buds on most of those, just waiting for spring and the right time to bloom. I say losing a few blossoms to pruning is no big deal: You will have a more beautiful tree to look at all winter, and a healthier tree next year.

Hardwood trees like maples, beech, oak, magnolia and linden can be pruned now. Maples and birch should not be pruned in the spring because they will bleed ferociously. Roses I usually prune in the spring, after I see how much the winter has killed off, if anything. Evergreens like pine and hemlock I usually prune right after the new growth has occurred in summer — that helps keep their growth in check.

Every tree or shrub is pre-programmed to be a certain size and shape. It’s in its DNA. You can influence how it will grow, but it will almost always persist and be what it is programmed to be. It’s very tough to keep a hemlock or pine small, for example. But you can remove lower branches so the mower can get under a tall tree, or make space for chairs in the shade.

My late sister Ruth Anne loved to prune. Her approach to pruning was to start by sitting on the ground and looking up through the branches. First, she looked for branches that filled up space but added little to the overall beauty and structure of the plant. If a tree is too crowded with branches, the interior is a mess and many leaves do not benefit from the sun.

Trees and shrubs look best, and perform best, when they have strong branches that will stand up to ice or snow loads. Ask yourself this question when considering removing a branch, “What will this look like in five years? In 10?” The answer guides me. I like to say that a bird should be able to fly through a well-pruned apple tree without getting hurt.

Don’t be a timid pruner. A few bold cuts (removing large stems) can transform a tree in just a few minutes. Nibbling away at the edges, taking off pencil-thick branches, is slow, tedious work.

How much wood can you remove in a single season? The old rule of thumb was a third of the leaf-producing branches. Now experts advise just 20 to 25 percent. Remember, the leaves are the engine of the tree. They produce the sugars that feed the roots, allow growth and produce the fruit. If you pile up cut branches near the tree you are working on, it will be easier to see when you have taken enough.

You should always remove all dead branches. Dead branches have dry, flaky bark. If you rub the bark of a small branch, you should see a green layer. Dead branches don’t count when you are calculating how many branches you can remove.

Where should you make your cuts? At the origin of the branch, either on a bigger branch, on the trunk, or at ground level. Don’t cut off a branch flush to the trunk as it will open up a big wound. Instead, look at the branch and see where the “branch collar” is, and cut just beyond it. The collar is the slightly swollen area at the base of a branch, and its bark is often wrinkled.

Here are the cuts I make when pruning a tree, in the order I take them out: (1) dead wood, (2) damaged or cracked limbs, (3) crossing or rubbing branches, (4) branches that are growing toward others or toward the center of the tree. (5) branches that are paralleling others and close to them (I remove the weaker of the two).

Removing a big branch is tricky: The weight can force the branch to break before you cut all the way through, allowing it to fall and tear the bark of the trunk. Make your first cut 18 inches from the trunk and on the underside of the branch. Then go a little farther out the branch and make a top cut. If the heavy branch starts to drop, the undercut will keep the branch from tearing the bark. Then make a through cut at the branch collar.

Buy good tools and keep them clean, dry and sharp. Don’t try to prune a tree that is so big you need a chainsaw. Leave that for the professionals. But shrubs? Anybody can work on them and make them look better. Think of pruning as creating sculpture. I do, and the frustrated artist inside me feels great when I have transformed a scraggly shrub into a thing of beauty. Go for it!

Henry has been living and gardening in Cornish, New Hampshire, for 53 years. He is the author of four gardening books. You may reach him at PO Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746 or henry.homeyer@comcast.net.

Featured photo: Branch collar to left of line drawn shows where to prune a branch. Photo by Henry Homeyer.

It’s time to plant spring bulbs

Try tulips, snowdrops and somewhat squirrel-proof daffodils

I’ve been planting bulbs around my property for at least 40 years, and some of them are still flowering each spring. I even have daffodils I brought up from my childhood home in Connecticut that might be 70 years old or more. Others run out of energy and disappear with time. If you haven’t done so yet, now is the time to get some and plant them.

First, let’s look at the basics: What makes a bulb plant survive and flourish? Decent soil. It must be well-drained. Soggy soil rots bulbs. If you have a heavy clay soil, it will stay wet and is not a good place for bulbs unless you add plenty of compost to the planting hole to help it drain better. Planting on a hillside helps, too, as water will drain off a hillside.

That said, there are a few bulbs that do fine in moist soil. Camassia is a lesser-known bulb plant that blooms in late spring with blue, purple or white star-shaped blossoms arranged on a central stem. Some are 2 to 3 feet tall or more. In the Northwest some grow in moist meadows or along the edges of woodlands. I’ve grown them and found a planting lasts about five years. There is one daffodil that does well in moist soil: thalia. It is very late, white and a bit frilly.

Bulb flowers take shade better than sun-loving perennials. Growing up we had hundreds of daffodils that bloomed along a woodland path behind the house. The leaves got sunshine and re-charged the bulbs before the trees were fully leafed out. Of course if you have plenty of sunshine, all the better.

Some people have had great luck planting daffodils in a grassy field or lawn. I’ve done that, but find that the bulb foliage is still green and producing food for the bulb when the lawn needs to be cut. If you cut the foliage too early, your bulbs won’t perform as well. I like to plant daffodils in flower beds between big clumps of hostas. They can bloom early, and then their dying foliage is hidden by the hosta leaves.

Some gardeners dig a little hole for each bulb, but that seems like too much work for me, even if you have one of those tools that are made for digging small round holes. I’d rather use my shovel to dig one oversized hole big enough for the 25 bulbs or more. For large bulbs like daffodils or tulips a hole 24 to 36 inches long and 18 to 24 inches wide is fine for 25 bulbs.

For the big bulbs I dig a hole 6 to 8 inches deep. Then I add compost and some organic fertilizer or “bulb booster” fertilizer and stir it into the bottom of the hole. I place the bulbs on the improved soil, pointy end up, and cover with more improved soil.

What about those hungry, bulb-stealing squirrels? They don’t eat daffodils as they are vaguely poisonous. They may dig a few up to see what you planted, but they won’t eat them. “Yech,” they say, if they inadvertently take a bite.

When I interviewed the White House gardener in 1999 he said they planted thousands of tulips each year, despite the rampant gray squirrels. He said they planted the tulips and covered them with soil, then put down a layer of chicken wire, then more soil. Oh, and he said they fed the squirrels all winter with cracked corn. Squirrels that are not hungry are less likely to try to steal your bulbs.

Some people have great luck with tulips coming back, but I consider them annuals. In general I find that the second year only half the tulips come back to bloom, the third year only half of those come back and so on. But I often plant 100 tulips, all one color for a blast of color in spring. I particularly like the tall ones that bloom a bit later.

‘Maureen’ is one of my favorite tulips. She is a 28-inch-tall tulip, a creamy white that blooms in May. ‘Menton’ blooms at the same time and is rose-pink with apricot-pink petal edges and is 26 inches tall. Wow. They make a nice mix.

If you consider your tulips annuals, you can plant them in your vegetable garden and pull them after blooming. Then you can plant tomatoes or something else there. I plant them close together, and they do fine. And if you have a deer problem, you can easily fence a small plot for 100 tulips with four poles and some bird netting.

The little bulbs are great early harbingers of spring, particularly snowdrops. Snowdrops are small white globes on 4-inch stems. Mine fight through frozen soil in early March. Some years (when we have deep snow) I shovel snow off the hillside where they appear so they can bloom on schedule. Each year I have more, so now, after decades, I have many hundreds.

Other early bloomers include winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis), a small upward-looking six-petaled brilliant yellow flower. Another favorite of mine is glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa luciliae). This is a nice blue with a yellow eye. It blooms shortly after the snowdrops in April.

Henry lives in Cornish Flat, NH. He is the author of four gardening books and is a UNH Master Gardener. His email is henry.homeyer@comcast.net.

Featured photo: Plant all bulbs pointy end up. Photo by Henry Homeyer.

Tips for growing great garlic

It’s the easiest vegetable — and tasty too

By Henry Homeyer
listings@hippopress.com

If you lean toward lazy (or have kids, dogs and a job), growing garlic may be just the ticket. It is the easiest of all vegetables to grow. Once planted and mulched, it requires little or no work until harvest. A good harvest is guaranteed if you follow my instructions. Even with all the strange weather we’ve seen, I’ve never had a bad crop in the past 25 years or so of growing garlic.

Now is the time to buy garlic for planting — unless you have some from your own garden saved for that purpose, as I do. You’ll want to get your garlic planted a month before the ground freezes, so depending on where you live, you may want to plant some soon. Garlic needs to establish roots now and is not generally planted in the spring.

There are two categories of garlic: hard neck and soft neck. Both will grow in New England, but hard neck is the type grown by most farmers and is the most cold-hardy. It produces a stiff scape or stem each summer that is edible. Soft neck garlic generally comes from California and is good in the kitchen; it is also the type braided and hung from the ceiling in Italian restaurants as decoration. Hard neck garlic generally has more flavor; a wide variety of flavors is possible, depending on the type you grow.

Garlic does best in rich soil that drains well. If you have a heavy clay soil (soil that is sticky when wet), you will need to add plenty of compost to your soil. Adding sand will not help, as sand added to heavy clay produces something like concrete that hardens up in dry times.

If you have poor soil, you may want to build a wood-sided raised bed and add plenty of compost and topsoil that you purchase in bulk or in bags. I find Moo-Doo brand composted cow manure and topsoil are good soil additives that are sold in bags in many garden centers. A 50-50 mix of your soil (or purchased topsoil) and compost should work well.

When making a wood-sided bed, I don’t recommend treated lumber. Even though most treated lumber is safe to handle and much less toxic than 20 years ago, I don’t want any chemicals leaching into my soil. I use rough-sawn lumber from a local sawmill, preferably hemlock. It generally lasts about 10 years. Eight-inch-wide planks are wide enough to make a nice box.
Plain pine boards will work, too, and metal corners are readily available at garden centers or from catalogs like Gardener’s Supply and Lee Valley Tools. The corners make constructing a garden box easy even for non-carpenters. All you need is a cordless drill to drive the screws. Carrots and other root crops do well in garden boxes, so you can alternate them with garlic in subsequent years if you build two or more boxes.

I generally use my own garlic for planting, as it has adapted to my soil and climate over the years. But if I see big, fat bulbs of garlic at a farmers market, I sometimes buy some. I don’t recommend buying garlic for planting at the grocery store as most has been treated to prevent it from germinating and so it will last longer.

Where can you get garlic for planting? If there is none at your local farmers market, you can get organic garlic from Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine (877-564-6697 or www.johnnyseeds.com). But don’t wait too long — they sell out most years.
Once the soil is loose and weed-free, I plant. I take a CobraHead weeder, a nice single-tined weeder, and make furrows in the soil of my raised bed. I keep the furrows about 8 inches apart. I sprinkle some organic bagged fertilizer into each row and stir it in.

I break the garlic bulbs apart, separating the cloves — there are usually five to 10 cloves per head. I push the cloves into the loose soil, pointy end up, about 3 inches deep and 4 inches apart. I cover with soil and then pat it gently.
The last step is key if you want a weed-free garlic bed: Put a foot of fluffy mulch hay or straw over the planted garlic. The straw will pack down over the winter and make a nice mulch that will keep most weeds from growing, but the garlic will push through it. It will be ready to harvest next July.
Depending on when you plant, the soil temperature, and when real cold weather comes, your garlic may send up a few green shoots this fall. Don’t panic! It won’t hurt your garlic. When cold weather comes, it will go dormant and do just fine next spring.

I believe that garlic is a healthy and tasty addition to my diet. It may even be medicinal — it has been used that way for centuries.
And this winter if you chew on a clove of garlic before going to the store, you’ll never get a cold — because people will stand back from you in line!

Henry lives in Cornish Flat, NH. He is the author of four gardening books and is a UNH Master Gardener. His email is henry.homeyer@comcast.net.

Featured photo: Place your garlic cloves on the soil to establish spacing before planting. Photo by Henry Homeyer.

Putting the garden to bed

Cut, pull, label, rake

To me, this felt like the summer that never was. It was rarely hot and sunny. The rainy gray days felt more like those in Portland, Oregon, than in New England. Even so, the summer we had is largely over and it’s time to clean it up and get ready for winter. Let’s take a look at what we need to do.

It’s time to start cutting back flowers that are no longer blooming. I like using a small serrated “harvest sickle” for the job instead of hand pruners. It’s available from www.oescoinc.com for about $8. I grab a handful of stems and slice through them with the tool, getting several stems at once. Of course you could use an old steak knife instead. I leave stems bearing seed heads that the finches, cardinals and other seed-eaters might munch on this winter. Wear gloves when you use the tool — it is very sharp!

I am conscious of erosion when removing plants in the fall. I think it’s better to cut off the stems of big zinnias, for example, than to yank them now. That way I am not opening up the soil, making it vulnerable to erosion or providing a nice resting spot for airborne weed seeds. Many weed seeds are tiny and can blow in from your next-door neighbor’s garden. I can always dig out roots in the spring when I plant something else, and they may decay and add some organic matter to the soil in the meantime.

Once you have cut back and cleaned up the garden a bit, you should pull all the weeds. I know this can be a tedious chore, it’s better done now than in the spring. Weeds in spring will start growing long before you start planting — and before the soil is dry enough for you to work it.

Weeding is easiest to do when the soil is moist. If you have big, deep-rooted weeds like burdock, you should use a garden fork to loosen the soil. Plunge the fork into the soil and tip it back, loosening the soil. Do that in a few places for a big weed. Then pull s-l-o-w-l-y. A quick yank will break off roots that will survive and grow next summer. Any weed that is loaded with seeds should go in a separate compost pile; otherwise the seeds could come back to haunt you, even years later. For smaller weeds, I like my CobraHead weeder.

And here’s a little-mentioned fall task: getting rid of the flowers that have not done well in the past few years. That’s right, not everybody gets to ride the bus. This is a good time to say to plants that have not performed, “You’re off the bus. Go live in the compost pile.” A plant that is too aggressive — or one that just won’t bloom — should be exiled. Next spring, that gives you license to buy something nice — you have a gap to fill in the perennial border.

What else? Place labels in the back right corner of any clump of flowers that is relatively new. By spring you may have forgotten what it is. I like those narrow white plastic labels. Not to look at, but to do a job. I use a No. 2 pencil or a special crayon to write the name, and then I push the label deep into the soil so that only a smidge is showing. If I can’t come up with a name, I know where to look. Back right corner.

Outdoor flower pots need to be emptied, cleaned and put away after frost. Don’t wait until December to do this — if a pot full of wet soil freezes, it will crack. You may as well clean out the pots now rather than in the spring. And save all that potting soil. You can invigorate it in the spring by adding compost and some organic fertilizer. So fill up a trash can or a few buckets with that potting soil and re-use it.

The vegetable garden needs to be weeded, and preferably mulched with chopped up fall leaves. If, like me, you make mounded wide beds, re-shape the beds now by hoeing up some soil from the walkways. Pull dead plants and get rid of them.

If you have an asparagus patch, look to see if your plants are loaded with those little red “berries,” their seeds. If you see seeds, cut down the stems right now. Some of those seeds will settle in and start more asparagus plants — and they will fight for moisture and minerals just as weeds do.

If you have old maple trees, think about giving them some ground limestone or agricultural lime this fall. Acid rain dissolves and washes away the calcium they need. Adding some lime will increase the vigor of your trees. And remember that soil compaction is bad for tree roots. Don’t park your car near a tree you love. Sprinkling a little compost over the soil will loosen it up as earthworms move it down and microorganisms break it down. Roots go far from the trunk of trees — much farther than the “dripline” of the branches.

My last task is always to rake the leaves. I chop mine in a chipper-shredder, but you can also run over them with a lawnmower. Leaves are full of good nutrients for plants, and are much loved by night crawlers and microorganisms. Rake the leaves onto a tarp and drag them away — that’s much more efficient than packing them into a wheelbarrow. Once it has rained, the leaves will settle in and make your plants feel cozy and loved.

Reach Henry at PO Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746 or by email at henry.homeyer@comcast.net. He is the author of four gardening books.

Featured photo: This harvest sickle is great for cutting back stems of flowers. Photo by Henry Homeyer.

Important for pollinators

Migrating monarchs need their carbs

Despite my best efforts to support monarch butterflies, this year was discouraging: I only saw two monarchs visit my gardens. I have a small bed just for milkweeds, both the common one and swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). But no monarchs laid eggs there this summer, no larvae ate the leaves, and I saw no butterflies sampling the nectar.

I know the importance of food for migrating monarchs at this time of year. They need to fill up on carbohydrates, fats and protein before flying long distances. That holds true for birds, too. Right now I have plenty of flowers blooming for monarchs and other pollinators, and seed heads waiting for the birds. I’m a bit discouraged, too, by the lower numbers of birds I am seeing. Let’s take a look at some of my fall favorites that migrating creatures could be feasting on.

According to Dave Tallamy, the guru of native plants for pollinators, the No. 1 plant we should all have is goldenrod — and we probably all do. There are dozens of species of native goldenrod, all popular with bees, moths and butterflies. Many gardeners pull them out when they show up uninvited. A few species spread by root and can take over a flower bed — but others are clump-forming. Even if you don’t want them in your beds, think about leaving them at the edges of your fields or woods.

Of those species easily found for sale in garden centers, the best is Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks.’ This plant is 3 to 5 feet tall and stays in an ever-expanding clump in full sun or part shade, but does not take over. Its blossoms last a long time, the stems curving gently outward, like fireworks. And no, goldenrod does not cause hay fever — that is ragweed, which blooms at the same time.

Less common is blue-stemmed or wreath goldenrod (Solidago caesia). I bought a plant 20 years ago and it is blooming now in dry shade. It really has not expanded its reach very much. It grows just 1 to 3 feet tall but usually is about 18 inches for me. It has delicate flowers that help light up a dark spot.

New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) is a tall native plant in the aster family with purple blossoms. It is still blooming for me, a month after starting to bloom. It does this by producing lots of buds which open sequentially — so it is not always a dramatic flower in a vase. But the bees love it. It is happiest in full sun in moist soil, but there it got too big for me, so I moved mine to dry soil with only morning sun. Now it is more manageable, but still a big plant. I’ve read that if you cut it back to the ground when it is 2 feet tall, it will stay smaller — but I never remember to do so. Sigh.

Speaking of asters, there are many native species, all good for pollinators and loved especially by monarch butterflies. This year the woodland asters are quite dramatic. They are a pale lavender and grow in shady places. Elsewhere a taller wild cousin stands 4 to 6 feet tall with deep purple or pink flowers. These grow in full sun and are often seen by the roadside at this time of year. Asters of all sorts are readily available at garden centers. Ask for native ones, not fancy hybrids.

Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpurea) is another tall plant in the aster family. It can get huge — over 6 feet tall if grown in rich, moist soil. A named cultivar called ‘Gateway’ has longer-lasting flowers and richer colors than the wild ones, though those are nice, too. Smaller varieties such as Little Joe, Baby Joe and Phantom are nice, and better suited for smaller gardens. I haven’t grown them but see they are sold as being 3 to 4 feet tall. Monarchs and other pollinators love them. All appreciate soil that does not dry out.

One tall annual that monarchs love is Brazilian verbena (Verbena bonariensis). It grows tall stalks that are remarkably tough — they grow 4 or 5 feet tall but rarely need staking. Its flowers are in small clusters. It often drops seeds which send up new plants the following year.

Lastly for pollinators, I have to recommend fall crocus, which is not a crocus at all but a Colchicum. This is a bulb plant that flowers on a 6-inch stem (actually the throat of the blossom) in pink, white or lavender. It sends up foliage in the spring that dies back, then each bulb sends up a cluster of blossoms in September or even earlier. They do best in full sun and rich soil, but do fine with some shade. They like to be fertilized each year. I often see small bees and wasps buzzing around in the blossoms.

I know that many gardeners are already cutting back their flowers in preparation for winter. But hold on! Flowers with lots of seeds can be left as winter snacks for our feathered friends. Among the best are black-eyed susans, purple coneflower, sunflowers, zinnias, Joe Pye weed, coreopsis, sedums and ornamental grasses. Wait until spring to cut those back so that finches, chickadees, cardinals and other seed-eaters can enjoy them, especially on those cold, snowy mornings when you don’t want to go fill up your feeder.

And of course, leaving some work for spring means less work now! So leave some seeds for the birds, and enjoy watching them in the winter.

Henry is the author of four gardening books. His website is www.Gardening-Guy.com. Reach him at henry.homeyer@comcast.net.

Featured photo by Henry Homeyer.

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