May 2nd, 2013
When we first moved into our house twenty years ago one of the delightful aspects for this gardener was the full, warm attic. Perfect for drying the flowers I was intending to grow. Papery statice, hydrangeas, and more. Now mind you, though I’d been a gardener for many years, I’d never dried or preserved flowers, but I figured it was about time. So that first year I grew gomphrena, love-in-a-mist, and celosia and tried my hand at baby’s breath and datura. At harvest time I gathered the bounty in bunches, tied their stems with string and hung them from the rafters in that attic.
They’re still there.
Oh, I had great goals. I was going to make potpourri, fashion dried bouquets to give away and maybe brew herbal tea. Such plans! Life intervened, and I never got around to doing any of it. But I still dry flowers. The difference is now I use them in arrangements. And why didn’t I use my flowers in the rafters? Turned out that though the attic offered perfect drying conditions, it wasn’t easily accessible. For a busy mom, the effort required to pull down the steps and harvest the bounty, while keeping little kids from climbing up where they didn’t belong, was too much. So I’ve devised easier ways to extend the growing season with dried flowers.
First, I stick to easily dry-able material, and I make sure the blooms are thoroughly dry. Though there are other methods of preserving plant material, such as immersing in sand and employing various chemicals, I stick to the simplest— air-drying. Take hydrangea, for example. The best way to preserve this old-fashioned stalwart is right in the vase. I find the older cultivars such as ‘Preziosa’ and especially ‘Glowing Embers’ dry better than the newer ones that flower on new and old wood. Gather cut stems in the cool of the day, and simply place in a vase of water positioned out of the sun. Enjoy the fresh blooms for as long as it takes for the water to evaporate and voila! You have dried hydrangeas.
Yarrow and allium both dry nicely. (here’s a tip…once ornamental onion has lost its color, leave the seedheads standing and get out the spray paint. No one will ever know the difference!) Amaranthus, the old-fashioned love-lies-bleeding preserves well, as does pearly everlasting, though I like to leave that in the garden for the butterflies to lay their eggs on it. Artemesia not only dries admirably but smells good too. Astilbe is easy to grow in shade and simple to dry
Joe-Pye weed, that late-season statuesque purple-flowering perennial, is irresistible to butterflies and lends charm in a dried arrangement. Also try gypsophilia, lavender and liatris for their blooms; money plant and baptisia for their seed heads, sedum, filipendula for their large flowers, and grasses for their wand-like flowers. For annuals, give gomphrena, celosia, strawflower and nigella a whirl.
Other materials lend themselves well to drying. Consider seed pods on plants such as coneflower, Siberian iris, grape hyacinth, and poppy. Ostrich fern fertile fronds stand tall, and if you’re fortunate to find a shrub or tree branch with an abandoned bird’s nest, that will provide a large-scale outline for a big arrangement. Also search out interesting galls, lichen-covered twigs and corkscrew willow.
I like to gather what I call the “last bouquet of autumn” with sedum, astilbe, perhaps some annual salvia ‘Victoria’ which will retain its lavender-blue color, and hydrangea. A vase or two of these beauties keeps the garden alive all winter.
A caveat: Don’t ever use bittersweet. That invasive vine is murdering our forests. The orange fruits, pretty as they are, can easily escape a wreath or garland and become a huge problem in the landscape.
So give your green thumb a go at drying favored garden flowers. It’s an easy way to lengthen the season through our northern winters. Just don’t leave your bounty in the attic!
April 18th, 2013
I learned the hard way that even an experienced gardener must read and follow label directions. As a longtime gardener I was pretty cocksure that I could grow plants from seed. What could possibly go wrong? I said to myself. A lot, as it turns out. After a crop or two of elongated little seedlings begging for the sun (and those were the seeds that consented to germinate) I was humbled. In subsequent years I made a point of learning about seed starting. Once I followed a few basic rules, my efforts produced healthy seedlings galore. And since one of the best things about being a gardener is sharing, here’s your chance to profit from my mistakes. Forthwith, my best tips for successful seed-starting:
Purchase seed starting soil. Don’t use regular potting mixture (too heavy). And for heaven’s sake don’t use garden soil. (ditto, but also full of potential pathogens for baby plants). Nowadays there’s even organic commercial blends and those which incorporate small amounts of fertilizer. Dampen the soil with warm water, but save back some dry mixture, I’ll tell you why in a minute.
Assemble your works. This means the pots, trays, soil, lights, seeds, tools, covers, labels and water.
Read the seed package. An essential step that I’ve been known to omit. (see above) Does the seed want to lie exposed? If buried, how deep? If seeds are to be covered, gently sprinkle the dry starter soil over the surface. Because it’s lighter in color, you can be sure you’ve covered the entire surface and thus buried the seeds. How many days or weeks to expected germination? You don’t want to be scratching your head in perplexity, or be taken unawares when the salvia argentea sprouts in a mere three days, right in the middle of your Caribbean cruise.
Assemble a mini-greenhouse. Once sown, seeds want a humid environment. If you’re not using a domed arrangement, construct one with a plastic-wrap cover. Moisten the edges; this will help it adhere better to the flat or pot.
Water faithfully. Very Important! Don’t let the seeds dry out, but don’t let the soil get soggy, either. Be careful not to dislodge the seeds or seedlings; bottom watering is good, or use a gentle mister.
Don’t depend on a sunny windowsill. To start seeds successfully, you’ll most likely need a supplemental light source. I use regular shop lights, not the expensive all-spectrum jobbies. Those are fine for producing blooming flowers, but I’m growing seedlings to place outside if spring ever arrives.
Place seedlings thisclose to the lights. Stick their noses right up under the light tubes, almost touching, and adjust upwards as they grow.
Separate plantlets when true leaves appear. I like to use a kitchen knife to oust the pack of tangled roots, then gently pull apart individual plants. These are placed in their own pot and grown on.
Harden off for wind, temperature and exposure. Know your plants. Geraniums and pansies can be set out as the temperature approaches 50, while begonias and coleus want the 60’s at least. Place your babies in a sheltered location such as a screen porch and gradually acclimate them to the great outdoors.
Place your sturdy youngsters in the garden and enjoy! And make sure you brag to garden visitors that your very own self started those wonderful plants from seed.
March 23rd, 2013
The dying wasp emerged from its paper nest and struggled for life, spiraling down onto the driveway where it convulsed and lay still. I watched in horror as I realized this wasn’t the first wasp from that nest I’d seen in death throes. It was August, and for the last several days there’d been less and less activity at the hive I’d been observing with fascination all season.
Wait. What? Why am I troubled by the demise of a wasp? Aren’t they nasty, fearsome creatures who deserve to die? Not by a long shot. As both pollinators and predators, wasps are an important part of nature. Without these feisty killers of bad bugs we would have far fewer and more expensive crops from timber to tomatoes. Paper wasps seldom sting us unless disturbed, but they prey upon nuisance bugs such as caterpillars and tomato hornworms. They also lay their eggs in some truly evil bugs such as longhorn beetles, which have destroyed thousands of trees in our area alone. Some entomologists speculate that the declining population of wasps is one reason the beetle has gotten such a foothold.
Fascinating creatures, social paper wasps construct a new nest each spring, producing their building material by chewing on wood and cardboard. The hive grows exponentially, but in the autumn, the work complete, the queens leave to establish new colonies for the following season and the worker wasps die with the onset of cold.
Local bee expert Peter Philip informed me that the wasps I’d been watching had probably been poisoned by insecticide-laden pollen. And therein lies a major problem. Not just with wasps, but with many flying pollinators. Due to habitat destruction, use of insecticides, stress and disease, we are losing these essential partners of horticulture.
It wasn’t so long ago that gardeners would ask what plants would not attract bees, but now with the knowledge of colony collapse disorder, which is the wholesale disappearance of honeybees, the question is more likely to be what gardeners can plant to attract bees as well as other beneficial insects.
All pollinators need nectar, pollen, water, and shelter. Planting flowers and herbs will keep the good guys content and working your garden from April to October. Since March is seed-starting month, now is an excellent time to consider what you can plant to attract beneficials and thereby do your part to promote a healthy garden and ecosystem.
Pollinators range in size from large, gentle bumblebees to tiny syrphid flies, (also known as hover or flowerflies), so hefty groups of flowers of various sizes and colors work best. Think composites, such as Queen Ann’s lace, dill and sunflowers. Think herbs such as cilantro and chamomile. Plan for early, mid- and late season to keep our insect friends fed all season. In the spring, use candytuft, columbine and sage. Basil, marigold and nasturtium supply food in the summer; and cosmos, arugula and gourds round out the autumn.
What else can you do? Don’t use poisons, and encourage your neighbors to do likewise. Most insecticides kill indiscriminately, the good guys as well as the bad guys. With increasing knowledge of organic pest control and integrated pest management (IPM), there’s always a safe alternative to a bug problem. Visit the Master Gardeners at your county Cooperative Extension office for advice. Consult organic lawn and land care companies such as Growing Solutions in Ridgefield. www.growso.com Visit nurseries such as Earth Tones Native Plant Nursery and Landscapes www.earthtonesnatives.com in Woodbury. At firms such as these the gardener gleans valuable knowledge from professionals who know how to protect the earth.
Getting back to my wasps….for those readers wary of bees and wasps, the best advice is to leave them alone and they’ll do the same for you. The paper nest I watched last summer was attached to my garage door frame. Would I have preferred they build elsewhere? Yes, but because I was aware and took some sensible precautions, I was not stung once.
The balance of nature is increasingly off kilter. It is incumbent upon us as gardeners and stewards of the soil to bring equilibrium back for the benefit us all; large and small, mammal, reptile, bird, and insect. For your garden is not just yours; it’s a cog in the great reciprocating wheel called Mother Nature.profile