April 19, 2017

A Visit to Plant Delights Nursery

I've been ordering from Tony Avent's Plant Delights Nursery since it's early years - dare I say perhaps since the mid 1990's when the catalog was still being printed in just green ink (without photos). In many ways, it taught me to look things up (before the Internet) and thus, learn not unlike the original Heronswood Nursery catalogs did.

Tony Avent overlooks a range of hoop houses in another section on the property where propagation occurs. Every spare space us used, and planted with trial plants to observe how they might grow in various conditions.

I am a huge fan of Tony's efforts, and jumped at the opportunity when my friend Bobby Ward a well known plantsman and author himself (author of Chlorophyll in his Veins - J.C. Raulston Horticultural Ambassador). Indeed, there is a spirit in Raleigh, NC were in this land of the late J.C. Raulston, knowledgable plant people just congregate. Bobby offered to drive me down to the Juniper Level Botanic Garden from the J.C. Raulston Arboretum where I was speaking this weekend to see exactly what delights where being cultivated by Tony Avent.

I had no idea what I was about to see.

Tony is trialing Linum lewisii, and was even impressed when we came upon this display in a berm. The entire motif was more Arizona than North Carolina.

I was warned that I probably would not be able to buy plants while there. So even though I had made the decision to drive down from Massachusetts (as I was speaking at the J.C. Rauslton Arboretum), I also thought - silly me, that I could stop in and shop at Plant Delights -- that it was like an ordinary garden center or something. My bad. As Joseph Tychonievitch told me a couple of weeks ago while staying here - "You know, Plant Delights isn't open to the public and you won't be able to shop around unless it is an open house weekend. But you'll want to order plants once you leave!"

Even more grow houses in another part of the garden. I peaked into one - dare-I-say: Podophyllum?

My experience with plant nurseries is probably much like yours -  a vision of often unattractive hoop houses, more likely that of old weathered wood, rusty expanded metal, concrete blocks, poly-filmy-shade cloth, the scent of cat pee, maybe even raccoons - you get it - a general air of untidiness - it just comes with the territory. The American nursery scene isn't quite the Lord & Burnham wood and glass greenhouse ranges of the past, and unless one visits an upscale 'designed' garden center Ala Terrain or Snug Harbor, the romance of the independent greenhouse retail experience is over.

That is, unless you visit Plant Delights Nursery, just south off Raleigh, North Carolina. Located about a half hour out of the city on a rural stretch of road where Bobby Ward explained to me with much detail, where the "Piedmont transitions into the coastal plain", or in layman terms, where the red clay dirt turns into sand, you can find the specialist nursery known to so many plant enthusiasts known simply as Plant Delights.

So, here is what struck me first - not the neatness as much as that for a nursery not open to the public, the parking lot was full of cars. Either Mr. Tychonievitch played a cruel trick on me, or these were vehicles for all the workers here.  The later was true thankfully, and as we stepped out of the car I noticed the range of hoop houses that extended in every direction - there had to be 30 or more, and each one so symmetrical -  perfectly encased with metallic foil material or mesh shade cloth making them look like tight foil-wrapped burritos from the local Chipotle.

Another trial field, with labels indicating the source, provenance and name of countless varieties of plants yet to appear in future catalogs.

Plant Delights is Much Bigger than I imagined

Then this is what struck me - the enormity of it all.  Plant Delights is huge. I suppose if I had the means, and had started a nursery 30 years ago when I should have in the Hinkleyesque era of Heronswood and Yucca Do that it might look -- like this (at least in my mind), but all I can say is that the catalog and webs site is misleading - to me - the branding and design guy - the guy who though that he really knew Plant Delights, who has ordered every year since the mid 1990's.

Habranthus species, crosses with other amaryllis and related genus. Genius. Something very important and innovative is happening here. 

Plant Delights is mysterious then. A bit of an odd place that still has a printed catalog that looks humble with its cartoon covers, sometimes edgy taste in words, descriptions and challenges the newbie with it's unique tone so unlike any big branded catalog. Visual design aside, even I - perhaps the most jaded by inadequate aesthetics can look past the man-eating plant characters and political landmines writing all just off as good-ol southern humor, to the amazing - yes - amazing plants. And I use the word amazing not in a 'bloggy' way. Really, really amazing plants. OK, Awesome plants.

Some will say expensive, perhaps some are, but to many of us, most of these plants are one-of-a-kind, field tested and selected by Tony and his staff, not by some buyer who cares more about manscaping than Mangave. So even though Plant Delight should be for everyone, it really isn't. Some will think it too expensive, the un-informed might be better shopping at their local garden shop, but for those who truly care and those who know, it's worth it.

How many nurseries start their own plants from seed? And how many are creating their own crosses today? Loved seeing this part of the business.

Innovation Happening. 

Universities and seed companies research, we know that,  yet few organizations, even most botanic gardens sad to say are able practice the type of research and development which is happening here.  Big biz research begins with a purpose and then often requires funding or grants to move forward.

Evaluation and critique here is more personal-- Tony isn't looking for a cure for cancer or to feed people in Africa - he's looking for the next interesting thing. Part artist, part inventor, part plantsman best defines Tony Avent. There might be plants nobody would ever notice or find beauty in except a real plant lover, while others some may find gaudy, others, must-have.

The Juniper Level Botanic Garden part of Plant Delights surrounds the growing fields, and in many areas, one can see both old and new plantings - setting the stage for a future more formal botanic garden someday.

Someone has to look for these things, to be able to have the luxury and means to bed out thousands of gladiolus or amaryllis species to see which one might be hardy, floriferous or special.  I mean - who is ever going to fund research to propagate an obscure yet remarkable Asarum collected in Taiwan with giant flowers nearly 4 inches across?

Yeah, that's why we have Plant Delights Nursery bookmarked.

Tony Avent shows me a very large Asarum nobleissimum "Crown Royal'  flowers as large as a mans hand.

The Impractical and Practical aspects of Plants as Product

Product development is often evaluated against practical opportunities like sales potential, the mass market appeal, a need, perhaps desire, beauty of a design,  whatever. But here, it's feels as if what really drives the research is curiosity - I mean, really - we don't know what we want until we see it.  The corporate part of the plant business might more practical questions - the have to.

Some of Tony's breeding with dwarf and mini hosta that he is trialing.

A mission or challenge for a plant breeder with commercial focus might be to find a certain color, or  a trait like an ever-blooming yet hardier daylily with the perfect height, that will bloom in a pot at retail but you and I know that somewhere out there, a habranthus that forms a mound and covers itself with flowers and is hardy in the North might emerge and could change everything -- someday. No one is going to fund, that. Surely, Tony is breeding for all markets, after-all, he is a businessman too, but one gets the sense that he likes both botanic rarity as well as profit.

The Japanese terrestrial orchid Calanthe looking mighty fine in the soil under the tall pines.

Plant invention then takes this synergy and support - that of independent plant breeders and collectors, folks to test, trial, evaluate and propagate, so the process depends on such independent 'studios' like Plant Delights Nursery, which can make these connections between people - who can market their discoveries, or improve upon them.

Another view of Asarum nobilissimum 'Crown Royal'

We inventors know that first it takes the luxury of time to make these connections, all this before the Post-It notes, a telephone or the next Magic Eraser is ever discovered. No one ever asked for those. (I never asked for a Magic Eraser though!).

I mean, who is going to even invest in  something as frivolous as a trillium that forms not three leaflets but a single one?

Plant Delights can, and does.

Gynandriris (Moraea) setifolia, a rare African iris relative known as the 'thread iris' which contains a cardiac glycoside which causes cardiac irregularity and sudden death (according to the medical free dictionary!). Probably good that I didn't steal it.

One of the most exciting gardens at Plant Delights Nursery is the brand new crevice garden still under construction. Made with up-cycled 'urbanite', what Tony calls recycled concrete, it is being planted with all sorts of interesting plants, most not commonly seen in typical alpine crevice gardens, this should open up a new way to garden in the south as well.

The New Crevice Garden

Bobby Ward explained to me in the car drive down here that Tony was inspired to gave a crevice garden after seeing the small one that Kenton Set installed at the J.C. Raulston Arboretum that the Piedmont chapter of NARGS sponsored, but this one being installed was completely Tony's idea a became a way for him to recycle the concert (which Tony calls 'urbanite') which was removed from the site of an old house where his new house is being built for he and his wife Anita nearby.)

Under the guidance of Colorado crevice garden wunderkind Kenton Seth who provided some advice over a few phone calls to Jeremy Schmidt on Tony's staff (Jeremy is from the 2005-06 Longwood Gardens Program and is currently research and grounds supervisor here). Along with help from experienced crevice garden builder Michael Peden who came down and volunteered from New York State to get Jeremy started, I was able to see the results of the first phase (yes, there are phases here - for the crevice trend is practical and endlessly interesting for plant people - allowing them to try plants in conditions which otherwise would never grow, even in this climate of the hot and humid south.).

Jeremy Schmidt on the staff at PDN shows me the material he used to fill the crevice garden with, part local stone, and part permatil (the pea sizes material which is inert, expanded slate). Along with gravel, native sand, native clay and a trace amount of organic matter, they are hoping to provide growing conditions for everything from South African bulbs to cacti.

Tony and Jeremy explained to me that their plans are massive.The final garden will be 250 feet long with both wet and dry areas. Tony said that the soil with have an alkaline pH which will open up the planting for many unusual species often not seen in crevice gardens which already exist in the Northeast or the Northwest, or even in the Southwest. Tony said that he plants to have this phase completed by late summer. Now, what botanic garden is able to undertake something like that besides Denver?

The first phase of the crevice garden is being planted now, and looks promising. Even more promising are the thousands of seedlings being raised in one of the propagation houses - 200 taxa I am told - all from excess NARGS seed (honestly, I've never seen such germination rates!). With 250 feel of crevice to fill, these seedlings will have a good home, but also, I can tell that interesting tests and experiments are going on, even in this phase one planting where unconventional plants such as craniums, Scilla and South African plants are being planted along with yucca. Panayoti would be proud (or jealous).

Field Testing and Research Support

Plants come here not just from Tony and his staff's breeding and collecting, but plants find homes here from all over the world. Anyone in the world today who is serious about plants knows about Tony and Plant Delights. I saw names on labels that I recognized from friends and explorers, collectors, hybridizers and plantsmen who wee visited or who have stayed with us, or those Iv'e only stalked on Facebook. The plant world is really a small world, and even though one may collect in South Africa, Chile or grow bulbs in Italy, they share through this amazing network of knowledgeable plant people not unlike a web of micorrhiza.

Mangave's are taking over. As cross between the genus Manfreda and the genus Agave,m, these less-pointy-more-rubbery plants are transforming how we plant succulents in containers with their size and amazing color, speckles and hues. More dog friendly too, with fewer eye-poking tips! Believe me, they look much nicer in person.


Then there is the Mangave trend - of which, we can thank Tony. We are at the nexus of the next rising trend in the plant world - the Managave (a plant name - or portmanteau - between Manfreda and Agave coined by both Tony Avent and his good friends at Yucca Do nursery.  Botanically an intergeneric hybrid between the genus agave and the lesser known genus of manfreda. Practically at Portmanteau, the Mangave is indeed making the plant world 'mad' - in fact, the phrase "We're Mad about Mangave™" is even now trademarked by them.

The results of this breeding project, which had now handed off to plant guru Hans Hansen from Walters Gardens is just beginning to produce results and I've seen things that I can't explain but which must be in pots in my garden as soon as I can get my hands on them (I'm placing my order NOW!).

It takes an amazing staff 

I particularly noticed the talented staff here - it kind-of made me wish that I could work here, (although, I can imagine that it can't be easy!).  Still, when one hears twenty somethings found watering plants in a hoop house and one overhears the chit-chat - you might expect tales from a night club adventure over the weekend, but no - instead I hear them bragging - not about bass fishing or motorcycles but  about whether it was 2 or 4 new species of trillium they collected last week while driving through the south.

Yeah - while some interns can spend a summer at well-known botanic garden and deal with the weeding and weddings, others could end up in someplace called Juniper Level and discover a new species. Just saying.

Asarum Macranthum 'You're so vein'

Really though, as corny as it sounds, there is a strong sense of purpose and pride here that one senses at every touchpoint, usually only something experiences today at something like a hip Starwood hotel, a Starbucks or an Apple Store. Yes, this is the Genius Bar. One feels the energy like that, the expertise, the smarts, which all translates down to the quality of the plants. It all feels like a smooth operation - that of picking and fulfilling orders to carefully wrapping and packaging. I saw trays of orders ready to go out in one house, and even boxes being packed by the 'elves' we never hear about in another house.

Shipping staff busy on this hot, spring day packaging up orders to go.

And then, there is the Amazon.com-ness

It's easy to forget that Plant Delight is also a mail order business. It might seem silly to impinge, but very much like my visit to Annie's Annuals outside of San Fransisco or even White Flower Farm, good mail order nurseries often don't feel like mail order nurseries. I don't quite know how to articulate it, (and believe me, this just may be my ADD mind playing tricks on me with far too many things to capture my attention), but for some reason, it's always a surprise when I come across how things really work.

Orders pulled, labeled and nearly ready to go, awaiting a final check. Look at the size of these plants!

I remember seeing hard-working staff members at Annie's Annuals sowing seeds behind long benches of salvia and nasturtiums seedlings, and then realizing that 'Oh yeah - right - this is a mail order business too - and a big one at that.). At Plant Delights, Tony was happy to show me how the magic works - how those big boxes of carefully wrapped big plants makes it to my doorstep.

Tony examines a Sprekelia formossima, a relative of the amaryllis which he is trialing in the field.

I know many feel that plants from Plant Delights is expensive. Maybe for some things, but all I can say is I rarely regret paying. premium price for premium product, and let's face it, with plants, it's always a bit of a crap shoot when ordering on-line. The reason I order from Plant Delights, aside from the selection, is often the size and health of the plant - especially for us in the North. A canna for $25 or an alocasia for $30 needs to be of some size before it begins to take off around July 4th around here. I can get that from PDN. Just be an informed consumer. If you an find the exact same cultivar for less elsewhere, then buy it there, if you want an unusual or hard-to-find one, go here.

Agave in pots

Organization is key

I always wondered how plant nurseries like this organize everything when I realized the challenge -and probably why being open to the public like a normal nursery could pose problems. Imagine if Amazon opened it's warehouse every day to the public, allowing folks to pick through paperbacks well organized in trays and little valuable bits in bins, each carefully numbered and coded by type. With plants, as living things, the challenge of maintaining organization is even more critical. For me, it's shocking that they are even open for the few days that they are.

Cypripediums are costly, but these each have many eyes, making the investment worth the added cost.

It was fun to see such excess right there before me - one tray of a rare cypripedium with name tags showing the price of $100 each reminded me of another risk (aside from the obvious one that name tags could easily be misplaced). Imagine being the team member who forgets to water that tray? Two grand down the drain, if not more. Imagine forgetting to water that greenhouse for one hot day (as today was?). Imagine the overhead? The nursery business - at this on this level is risky, but somehow Tony and his team of talented plant people are making magic. Let's hope that they continue long into the future.

Agave's in containers are addictive.

Plant Delights is part Taliesin, part Tanglewood and part Santa's Workshop. It's probably part labor camp too for some, but all good things come with a cost! This stuff ain't easy.

appeal, places like this will only become more important.

April 10, 2017

Mastering The Art of Growing Onions

Why is it that native treats - those picked in the woods or found while one is foraging which are usually the most sought after by b both foodies and plant people. Spring is the season for Ramps - the frustratingly rare and hard-to-afford $20 a pound woodland allium which shows up in fancy food markets for a few weeks in April even around here, although New York State is the chosen spot where it grows wild and is foraged.

Some try to grow it ( even I, as I have found some seed and have even planted some store-bought plants in an attempt to introduce it to our woodland, but time will tell if the divide and spread). Morel mushrooms make this list as do most wild mushrooms do, but there is something about early spring foraging that makes it even more special, maybe it's because we are hard wired to crave fresh food in that gap season between an empty root cellar and the first harvest from the garden.

Many in the onion family enjoy raised beds, but not pots or containers. These leeks and green onions (foreground) are interplanted thickly with some early white turnips and a couple of parsley and self-sown dill plants, but in a few weeks, they will have more space in which to mature once the turnips are ready.

Ramps - the luxury of rarity.

Ramps both delight and confuse me. To be honest, I buy mine from a secret source but I am always confused as to how to cook them and enjoy them, it's not above be to simply acquire something just because I know it is rare - I figure that I will learn to appreciate the item after I figure out how to appreciate them better (my cilantro theory, the goes for raw oysters, avocados and kidneys - the may come from some strange competitive gene that only appears in the youngest sibling who wants to earn some weird exclusive respect from their parents simply because their older siblings 'failed' such 'tests'.

Ramps are a rare, seasonal treat in the North East with a flavor which combines garlic and onion. Are they over rated or not?  Well, they can only be foraged and while a few farms are raising a few in beds, they are unlikely to ever become a big, commercial crop. They still offer a delightful option to many foodies during the few weeks when they are available.

Or, it's the closely related 'macho-test' often associated with tolerating tests of hot sauce, or drinking raw eggs as a child. In this house, aside from the daily raw egg in a glass that my dad would drink with us when we came home from school before working out ("it will but hair on your chest") - by far the hairiest chest comes from the freshly grated horseradish torture test that my father would subject us boys to. It often happened on a cold, fall day when we would be lined up - by age - and challenged with a spoon of fresh, horseradish. As the youngest - one who would never admit defeat even if ones eyes showed otherwise, at least today I can say that I love horseradish, and the stronger, the better.).

Back to ramps, I guess I have never eaten them prepared by a chef in New York City, but I plan on it soon - until then, I try them in different ways, a frittata where they add their garlicky goodness in ways that somehow makes the omelette feel very special, even though a bit of fresh garlic or fried shallots from the garden be infinitely tastier, yet perhaps not as photogenic or 'rustic', I just can't help but think that if chives were rare, seasonal and local that they would be worth far more  valuable than the lowly ramp. Either that, or its just that they are wild and foraged that makes them special - or maybe just because they have roots which fine chefs wouldn't dare cut off.

Look, they may not be the 'lobster of alliums', but  within the entire genus of alliums, aren't there better choices? Perhaps, but ramps are just special to some people, and who can argue with 'special'? Especially with a genus which offers both weedy and rare. With alliums, some multiply too quickly and become ridiculously 'weedy' while others are difficult to even get to set seed. Some alliums are curiously common - the 'walking onion' our Egyptian Onion so common in old gardens which produced bulblets on the top of their flower stems. Every garden deserves some alliums either for their floral value or for use in the kitchen - here are some of my favorite, which I grow for food - it is easy to assume that raising onions is easy, since they are technically a bulb, and bulbs always perform, but as anyone who keeps a veg garden knows, the results in the end are sometimes less exciting than the beginning of the process. If you want big onions, real useful harvests of leeks, green onions, shallots and storage onions - maybe this post will help you.

Onion seedlings in a seed tray. Sown in February, these are sown closer and divided later, but the best results come from seed sown individually into seed cell trays, where each seedling gets their own little pot.

Mastering Onions in the Home Kitchen Garden

Informed onion growers who raise plants for the kitchen know today that they best onion varieties come from seed, and the finest onions from the home garden come not from sets, but from seed which one must sow in mid to late winter indoors. Onion Sets are essentially small onions raised to a small bulb size, harvested and then wintered over to be replanted to continue their growth in the home garden in a more-handy size). Rarely will they produce large onions, but they are fine for some greens earlier in the year, and if grown well can produce moderately sized bulbs, but the difference between single season onions - those grown from seedling starts, is incomparable.

It comes down to variety when the home chef chooses onions to grow. Heirloom, slender red varieties, pure white types, golden yellow - there are endless varieties from which to choose, yet some basic onion culture knowledge is helpful for it can be easy to make a wrong turn when selecting onion varieties since many are decisions must be based on ones location.  Northern gardeners have some limits when it comes to onion varieties which only grow best in southern gardens during the cooler winter months, while summer gardeners in the south or west might do better with a winter crop than a summer crop. Always check with your local growers or university to identify what varieties are best for your region.

Raising onions and leeks in cell trays will give you better results when setting out in the spring. 

Many home gardeners in Zone 5 -6 find seedling starts available via mail or at the garden center, which are fine if not a better option than sets, but often they lure the home grower into thinking that they can raise a southern winter variety like 'Walla Walla Sweet' or Vidalia. Sadly, the results are often less than satisfactory given summer heat and day length.  These are onions grown as winter crops in Georgia and Washington state, and will barely perform in a hot and humid garden in North Carolina or Massachusetts.

Weeding is an art when it comes to onion culture. Space, and no competition helps.

A better option will be a large, yellow or white storage onion variety like Alisa Craig or 'Patterson', for one will have better results with  these onions known as 'storage onions' vs those with a higher sugar content but a short shelf life. The truth of course is that most home growers will use most of their onions within a few weeks of harvest, so actual storage isn't the real problem - but size is. If you want the largest onions, either start them from seed or seedlings, and ensure good moisture and nutrition through the summer, but variety is key, so choose any onion that has 'storage' in its description.

Onion seedlings can be sown thickly and divided when planting, but I now opt for growing them singly in cell trays, which gives me a larger onion.

Choosing Onion Sets or Onions from Seed?

Then there is the question of onion sets vs. seed.  My father preferred 'sets' but that was the 1960's and 1970's when onion sets were often the only way suburban gardeners would raise their onions. A paper bad of sets could be purchased at the farm store along with other spring essentials like pea seed, baby chicks and ground limestone. Today I raise a bit of everything, even onion sets if I must, but nothing says that you are an inexperience gardener more than starting onion sets indoors - they must be 'set' outdoors, in cold soil early in the season, if one wants to avoid early blooms and tiny bulbs.

Storage onions can be picked while green, but that will impact your harvest. If you want large storage onions in the late summer, keep them growing all summer long- and this means lots of water and food. Otherwise, they will go dormant by early August, and you will end up with small onions.

The same goes for those onions that you bought at the market that are starting to move into growth - it's OK of course, so plant a few in a pot I suppose, for some early greens, but don't expect anything more beyond a mushy bulb and fiercely tough greens once the weather gets warm - a flower if you are lucky, but I say leave the store-bought onion for DIY mommy bloggers and kids projects - they are a fine way to introduce children to gardening, as they grow quickly when set on a glass of water in a sunny window, while in the garden, all alliums are slow to germinate, grow and mature testing even the most experienced gardener - hence, the challenge of raising good green onions.

Raising Green Onions in the Garden

Green onions, scallions or scullions (?)  greens are a challenge to master, as they must be sown directly into cool soil early in the spring. Sown just thickly enough so that plants can mature to be a half inch in diameter, a row sown in April will look like nothing until June, but can offer the home chef endless green onions which are superior in both texture and flavor than commercially grown green onions, cutting easily into tiny slices as they have never be crushed in a box and shipping buy air.

Green onion seedlings can be sown thickly, and can be confused with grass when they are young, but nothing beats a freshly picked green onion for recipes - ask any chef.

Success with green onions begins and starts from seed. This is a crop which can only be grown from seed, which is not an easy task for the impatient. I cannot function without a summer of green onions, and the varieties that the home gardener can raise are far more tender and special than any commercial variety as well - red green onions such as 'Deep Purple' sold by Johnny's Seeds, or green and white varieties, each when raised via seed, superior and on my top 5 list of what every home chef must grow.

The value of space in a garden makes green onions far more useful and dependable than most any other crop (about my 'top 5' list - this is just me justifying the value of space in a small, urban garden. Items one buys each and every week from the market gets more space than anything else, along with parsley, dill, cilantro and basil). Flavor and quality factors in of course, so space is always dedicated for those crops which are infinitely more flavorful when harvested from the home garden, to just because they are raised at home a mere few feet from the kitchen door, but more because the varieties one can grow are often far better than commercial ones which are selected more for their ship ability and for other practical reasons than something merely based on taste or nutrition.

The home raised onion may be slightly better than a store bought one purchased in-season (autumn for yellow onions and red onions, or spring for super-sweet Vidalia and winter growing sweet - types from the south), but space for alliums in my garden is based on choice and variety - with leeks getting top spot over even garlic, which I can get at farmers markets just as conveniently. Every few years I will grow a couple or three varieties of garlic, but the space is precious.
Garlic and Leeks growing in my garden last year. Raised beds works well, but avoid culture in containers unless they are large, raised beds or 100 gallon drums - leeks need space.

On Raising Leeks in the Home Garden

Leek culture is fun, but they do occupy space year-round, requiring an early start via seed indoors in January and then setting out in early spring into stone free sifted soil which - well, let's face it - there are some financial leek growers around (such as men who live in the UK like these guys), In American, the leek suffers from a lack of history in both cuisine and in garden culture, which is ashamed, for in so many ways, it is the queen of the alliums, adding subtle flavor and gentle elegance to most every dish it is added to, let alone the joy of braised leeks. Whenever I cook with leeks someone will comment on their lovely scent, with warm butter and olive oil, the scent of leeks is sublime.

Leek seedlings are planted deep, in a trench and in a hole in early April. Soil is then hilled in, as the season progresses - the goal here is to achieve a long, white stalk with green leaves higher up on the plant.

Competitive leek growing in the UK aside (saving that for another post!), in our home gardens, leeks can offer a challenge, but if one chooses to grow leeks in the home garden, one can assume that one is not only a more informed gardener, but surely a bit competitive - at least, not one to shun when challenge is faced. Leek growers tend to 'bring it on' when it comes to growing their vegetables, and actually enjoy taking the extra steps to achieve leek greatness (the same goes for parsnips by the way!).

James Crockett of PBS' famed Crockett's Victory Garden show from the 1970's introduced many of us to the specifics of proper leek growing, which begins with sifting compost and soil as one would do for a deep, soft, friable soil often reserves for perfection of root crops like parsnips and carrots, but since leeks are not technically a root crop but a bulb, they demand extra soil amendments and treatment throughout the season, beginning with a rich soil with added compost and nitrogen, but also  planted deeply as seedlings, sometimes nearly a foot deep if the seedlings are long, as just a few inches are needed to emerge out of the soil. Most growers begin with a trench, with added composted manure, hilled to the side, and then brought down to fill the trench as the seedlings grow through the spring and summer.

The competitive growers can offer us some valuable tips as well, even though our kitchens hardly need a leek which is 12 inches in diameter or a meter long. Small leeks are nice too, but there is no such thing as 'baby leeks' no matter what your gourmet market says. Small leeks are merely poorly grown leeks. The home grown leek is lovely in the garden, graceful in foliage and form, and a row or two of leeks can look attractive for the entire season. IN winter, they are one of the vegetables which can be harvested late, after frosts and sometimes even in snow (however, protection will be needed in the far north, nothing that a deep mulch of straw won't fix - the truth is, leeks will freeze if temps drop too low below zero.).

Leek seedlings in my greenhouse this year, in late February.

I start my leek seed early, in most years late January or early February as the seedlings can be tiny and grass like. Leeks are the first seeds I sow for the coming season. The Brits are more aggressive, starting their seed in November or even earlier in cold greenhouses, but that is both impractical and not that effective for those of us in northern North America, but the goal is to have strong, leek seedlings by mid April to set out into the prepared bed. Seedlings should be pencil thick, or about a 1/4 thick if grown well.

 Trenching is the traditional method of growing leeks, with seedlings set in about 6-8 inches apart while I prefer 9 - 10 inches as I like to get leeks growing rich and thick. I use a granular 10-10-10 mixed into the soil first just below the surface scratched in, and then topped off with a water soluble feed to kick-start root growth and to take advantage of cool weather growth.  Leeks are one or the few veggies I set into the grown using a dibble - a pointed stick, which makes a nice, deep hole perhaps 6-8 inches deep. Any stick will do of course, with the goal here to set the seedling in deep. A bit of soil filled into the hole is required, but newer methods are emerging, most advise the grower to allow the rain to fill in the rest of the hole with soil as the leek seedling grows.

In the UK competitive leek growing is practically a sport. (photo courtesy of The Mirror). To achieve such size, growers have many secrets, but most begin in the autumn of the precious year with sowing seed in cool greenhouses.

Since soil is key for leeks, nutrition is something one should take some time to perfect. If you didn't have success with leeks in the past, it's more likely due to soil nutrition than anything else. The truth is, leeks are one of those vegetables referred to as 'heavy feeders', and balanced is best (10-10-10), while 10-20-10 might be more effective if you can find it as technically, the plant is a bulb. If you can find an organic food with this analysis the certainly use that - I use both organic and chemical fertilizer as I am a horticulturist and home grower, and err on the side of most horticulturists that all fertilizer is chemical (hello periodic table), but if you go all 'organic', note the analysis particularly with fish emulsion which can be higher in nitrogen which you want to avoid. A dry organic mixture is OK for use with leeks as they are a long-season crop, and granular dry mixes often need more time to become available to plants, but will require soil prep in the following autumn to provide maximum effect.

Leeks are rather care free throughout the summer however, with good watering and a monthly feed will suffice, and some hilling of soil might be necessary. Beyond that, by late summer or autumn, the leeks will look large and spectacular in the garden, and if so, may just need some careful lifting as needed in the kitchen with a pitch fork around October. Leave the rest in the garden for use on an as-needed basis.

April 6, 2017

A Day in a Sugar Bush

It doesn't take many words to say "maple syrup", as this road sign posted by the Wells Family on their sugarbush which was still actively producing maple sap this past weekend in Dublin, NH. The blue pipes in this pic carry maple sap back to the evaporator located in a steamy, wood-fired sugar shack - the perfect way to spend a Sunday in early spring in New England.

Here in New England, winter has yet to leave us. To be more precise, winter just arrived this March as it was the coldest month of the winter season this year, which has played havoc with maple syrup producers, as many started tapping their sugar maples as early as January this year as an early winter thaw brought on the ideal conditions for maple sap activity - nighttime temps below freezing, and daytime temps in the 30's and 40's. This weekend we decided to journey north to find an active sugar bush - a name for a stand of sugar maples which can be tapped for their sap, which is then boiled down and reduced to make maple syrup and other maple products.

Syrup is graded into various grades based on color and flavor, the darker it is, the more flavorful it is, but often one needs to visit a sugar shack to get the really tasty syrup.

Just an hours drive north of our house we drove to southern New Hampshire in search for some maple syrup sugarhouses that might still be active - last week most sugar shacks closed in the area, but after a big late winter snowstorm this week, I was hopeful that some trees might still be producing sap (they stop once they bloom, which can happen as early as mid March).

We found a few sugar shacks that were still active. Instead of visiting a touristy site, we opted for the homemade sign on a back road, and ended up at the home of Toby Wells and his family, who are in their third year of sugar production. We couldn't have struck it better - a steamy sugar shack, hot syrup to taste and lots of home made maple products for sale. The WELLS FAMILY SYRUP farm is located on Fiske Lane in Dublin, New Hampshire and you can contact Kelleywells@outlook.com to purchase their delicious syrup, maple cream and other products.

The sign led us down this road, barely plowed after yesterday's spring snowstorm here.

We knew that we were on the right path, as we could see pipes and hoses leading down the hill, connecting all the sugar maple tree taps, to storage containers. Today, no one uses buckets anymore, instead, a sugarbush is more like a modern plumbing system in a new house.

Pipes are different colors, I guess different sizes. The can run a long distance through the woods, all ending up at the sugarshack where the sap, which looks and tastes just like water from a tap, is filtered and separated, then evaporated.

The snowy woods looked so pretty in the April sunshine.

Joe watched the syrup boil at the Wells Family sugarshack, located on a quiet back road in southern New Hampshire, steam rises as maple sap is reduced down in a wood pellet fired evaporator.

The sky was so blue and the sun so bright, that it felt more like June than April, but with a couple of feet of snow on the ground, it didn't take long to remember that this was just a late New England spring.

Proprietor Toby Wells explained to how he build his evaporator from scratch, and how challenging this years' sugar season was for many in New England as trees that were tapped too early 'healed up' by late February, and how most sugarshacks stopped producing a few weeks ago, unaware of a brief 'second season' brought on by late cold weather. Once the maples bloom, the season will end, which should be by this weekend this year.

Toby Wells served us some warm maple syrup fresh from the evaporator - it was incredible, thick, sweet and hot - the perfect cough medicine, (well, a little bourbon in it may have been nice too!). 

On the way back home, we stopped for a late breakfast at a cool diner that served us a burger on a homemade maple bacon donut. (OK, it was weird and awful, and we regretted getting it, but it sounded good at first!). Mount Monadnock peaks over the distant hills here in southern NH.

Back at home, the greenhouse was in bloom with spring treats like this Primula x Kewensis which is really beginning to bloom nicely under the protection of glass.

Melasphaerula raceamosa which self seeds through the greenhouse blooms in a random pot. I don't mind it's surprise bloom, for the corms are rare in most collections.

Tis the season for red bell shaped flowers - Kalanchoe manginii in a hanging basket 

Tropical rhododendrons enjoy the cool temps in the greenhouse, and this is the first time this species has bloomed for me - Vireya 'Tropic Alpine' is a sub alpine form bred from selections native to the highest elevations of Mt. Kinabalu in Borneo.

Another Vireya blooms below it on the bench, this one is R. 'Saxon Glow' or Vireya 'Saxon Glow', it always performs well for me under cold glass.

While on the subject of late winter blooming shrubs in the greenhouse, a few camellias to share - most of my plants are blooming very late this year. This one is another new one for me - Camellia 'Happy Harlequin'.

Another first-time bloom for me, Camellia 'Haru No Utena'

I show this one variety all the time, but it's so beautiful, I can't resist - this plant won Best in Show last year at the Massachusetts Camellia Society show. Camellia 'Margaret Davis', a parent of many show winners for obvious reasons.

Lastly, the last of the Dutch bulbs are blooming after being forced in pots. I really like the floral form on this daffodil - which should be nicer in the garden (I did plant a few dozen outside this year, but saved a few to force too). This one is Narcissus 'Exotic Mystery', I think it will look nice in the natural garden, as it is less showy than the big yellow honkers.


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