Showing posts with label projects. Show all posts
Showing posts with label projects. Show all posts

February 19, 2015


 Even just 5 bulbs of Iris 'Katherine Hodgkin' makes a scene. Bred in the 1960's it's a cross between two rarer small iris, I. winogradowii and I. histriodes, both delightful choices to force if one dares to risk ruining their bulbs ( I prefer them in the garden) but 'Katherine Hodgkin' is easy, and relatively available - it just sells out early in the catalogs.

The snow here in the Boston area is insanely deep, the icicles are nearly 15 feet long, and connect the roof gutters to the ground, and although I am tempted a bit to snowboard off of our roof into a snow drift, now that we are back from New York, I am focused on the bulbs I have been forcing for a mid-winter flower show, being held this weekend at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden (you MUST come visit it, as nothing will lift your spirits more!).  I've talked them into regenerating the classic winter bulb show, very much like the way most spring flowershows began in Boston, Philadelphia and New York in the mid 1800's - it's in their DNA to to sponsor such an event, and I have so much hope that this event will inspire others to grow and enter plants during the winter months.

Even though I knew that I wanted to force many plants for this first of what I hope will be an annual show, I just didn't realize,  back in October when I started potting up bulbs, that this last week of February would require me to be traveling (New York Toy Fair and Westminster Dog Show). This is a critical time when one is forcing different types of bulbs, as timing can become tricky - snowdrops rush ahead as tulips need care, when coaxing them into bloom, small iris can burst into flower within a couple of warm, sunny days while the rarer muscari slug along hoping for a sunny week of 70º weather in the greenhouse. Needless to say, it's been a challenge to time everything to bloom on a single Friday.

Click below for more!

October 8, 2014


Black centered white anemones are practically impossible to find for the home garden, but I did find one source - an although Anemone coronaria can only be grown outdoors in warmer zones ( Zones 8 or higher), they are perfect for cold greenhouse. Soon  I will share my story about my search for the black centered white anemone but for now, I will have to settle for this black centered 'DeCaen' selection.

I've decided to add a short winter projects list to my already long annual list of projects (which are mostly summer projects - more updates on those in a few weeks). I love gardening in the winter, in the greenhouse more than I do gardening in the summer, so it should come as no surprise that I would ass a projects list for the winter season, too. My winter projects like mostly includes projects in the greenhouse, which I know may or may not be interesting to you, but I think that you will learns something from a few of these.

Read more - click below

August 12, 2014


This summer I have been assembling and training a collection of about 25 upright fuchsia selections, some historical, others just curious, which I am training to be either standards ( topiary) or bush uprights, a method of growing fuchsias once popular in conservatory displays at botanic gardens and private estates were gardeners trained fuchsias for summer displays in greenhouses or on the porches of grand, summer cottages in Newport and Connecticut. If you are looking for true coral colored flowers, long, delicate clouds of bee-sized blossoms in shades of lavender-grey or peachy pink, with little skirts or magenta and raspberry looking more like those engravings from a nineteenth century fairy tale book than a floral display, than maybe these old-timey fuchsias are for you.

Upright fuchsia varieties have all types of blossoms. Some are very small, others quite large, but they all hang.

There are many reasons why good plants can't become commercial, and certainly, height is one of them - just try to find a perennial taller than 16 inches at a home center or big box store nursery - the reasons are more practical than one might think - they just don't fit on the shelves, so merchandising is out of the question. One is most likely to find small fuchsias, in bloom and in 4 inch pots for window boxes (treated with growth regulators) than any interesting species or selections known for their amazing floral color or display.  All this aside from those horrid hanging basket fuchsias (nothing wrong with them, ecxept that I find them revolting).

June 9, 2014


Left to right - 'Aquilegia caerulea Songbird series  'Nightingale', 'Songbird Series 'Bluebird' and Songbird Series 'Dove'

Do you remember when you were a little kid? Mom's cosmos and zinnias seemed to be more than 6 feet tall? Those Larkspur's and asters towered over the top of your head, and fragrant roses where at nose level? Those were all great, but there was something magical about the delicate dangling blossoms of Columbine, which hung just at eye-height. Well, then you were only about 3 feet high yourself, but just tall enough that you could peer deep inside those long spurs of Columbine, the trumpets of daylilies and giant, papery blooms of Oriental Poppies with their deep, black boss of stamens (and usually with a surprise bumblebee bumbling around inside) - nostalgia in the garden, the charm of these vintage flowers is often lost to the more sophisticated of us - experienced gardeners who generally snub those plants that are often sturdy survivors. Denizens of abandoned or ill-kempt perennial borders. Plants for the lazy gardener. The amateur, and not as 'hip' or stylish as a 'Patty's Plum' Papaver or a 'Nora Barlow' aquilegia.

Songbird Nightingale, Songbird 'Cardinal' and Songbird 'Robin'

But sometimes I like to challenge the elitist not-so-deep inside me, for I am man enough to admit that although I may grow heirloom leeks and poach them with a homemade mustard vinaigrette, I still can appreciate a good egg McMuffin ( with Canadian Bacon, not sausage - come on). And so it goes with my gardening -- I do raise rare South African bulbs from seed, and high alpine narcissus from Morocco, but I also love to indulge in tall, golden marigolds and scarlet geraniums (within reason, of course), and even though a hybrid columbine mix may seem like an exotic perennial to many new gardeners, to those of us who spend hours trying to track down rare Podophylum, it is something that usually gets back-listed in favor of endangered primula seed from the Himalaya.

But remember - epic Egg McMuffins, baby.


Sometimes simple, common -- even hybrid, is OK.

It can even be ….awesome.

December 27, 2013

How to grow Artichokes in the North

If you've never considered growing artichokes in your northern garden, why not try some this year? Just remember that they need lots of room ( 9 square feet for each plant) and plan on a long row, if you want to have enough for a meal or two.

As the year comes to an end, and the seed catalogs begin to arrive in stacks, the summer vegetable garden can seem months away ( oh, right - it IS months away!), but there are some plants which need to be started in early January, which may help you overcome your winter blues. Sure, the Winter Solstice just occurred a week ago, but nature doesn't rest, and some plants need time to grow - pansies ( viola species and hybrids), geraniums ( the hybrid pelargoniums we all know as 'florist geraniums' need to be sown under lights by the New Year if one wants flowers in spring), and artichokes. Yes, artichokes. They can be grown here in the north, but prepare yourself, it will take some work, and now is the time to begin. Here is how I grew my globe artichokes last summer from seeds that I sowed the first week of January.

Artichokes have deep roots, so I use Root Trainers, a folding device not unlike a book, which allows one to raise tap-rooted plants and deep-rooted plants like Sweet Peas and artichokes and transplant them with little root disturbance.

Order seed for artichokes at Christmastime. Look for varieties that will perform well in your climate. Here in New England, we are limited to fast-cropping varieties. I prefer seeds from Johnny's Selected Seeds, as the seeds are grown in the north, and they carry artichoke 'Imperial Star', a special variety that will bear bud within one year grown from seed. essential for northern gardens, as artichokes are perennial elsewhere, one must cheat a bit in the north. With 'Imperial Star' one can harvest large globe artichokes in late June from a January sowing, even in Maine.
Seeds are soaked in warm water for 12 hours, and then sown in the cells. Bottom heat at 70º ensures proper germination, but once the seedlings are germinated, I grow them at 60º under lights. Care must be taken not to expose them to cooler temperatures until March, when the seedlings are exposed to temperatures below 40º F for two weeks, which acts as an artificial winter ( vernalization). It sounds hard, but I just set the pots outdoors, taking care not to let frost hit them.

By April, the seedlings are ready for 6 inch pots.

After all risk of frost is past ( May 21 in our area), seedlings are planted out into the garden and fertilized well. Heavy feeders, I started  with a high nitrogen fertilizer for three weeks, and then turned to one with low Nitrogen and high phosphorus for the balance of the growing season. At no time were plants stressed with draught or nutrition.

Some plants were saved for the parterre, as the foliage is ornamental and completed the very Provencial-look I was going for with rosemary, lavender and lemons in front of the greenhouse.

By the Fourth of July, I was surprised to find buds as large as those in high-end markets from my own garden just outside of Boston. I could have waited for a second crop, but I pulled the plants to make room for a late crop of squash. There is nothing like fresh artichokes, which are less stringy, snappy-crisp and sweet.

Side buds will also form, and can be used as 'baby artichokes'. but I rarely bother with these. The stems on home-grown artichokes are tender too, so plan on picking longer stems to steam. Just peel, to remove the strings, and steam.

Full Size artichokes from a New England garden from artichokes plants grown as an annual.

October 6, 2013

Drying Corn, for Corn Meal

Originally from the Yucatan, Oaxacan Green Dent corn is a primitive heirloom selection, which produces these distinctively dark green and olive colored cobs. Primarily a corn meal variety, it is also ornamental.

This year I wanted to grow something really different - something that I never grew before, and I settled on trying some dry field corn, more specifically, an heirloom green Aztec variety called Oaxacan Green, a dent type of dry corn, which  foodies-in-the-know have become obsessed lately, as it produces the finest corn meal, with a deep, earthy and sweet flavor. In November, I plan on making the most delicious corn bread from my very own corn meal. Until then, I must properly dry the cobs first. Today, I picked the crop, which I am drying on our porch, as rain is expected for the next few days. Hung out like this, the cobs will dry in three weeks, and then I will finish it off in the over to ensure that no moisture remains in the corn kernels.

July 29, 2013

Grow your own 'Herbes de Provençe' _

Herb wreath, herbes de provence
Making your own Herbes de Provençe is easy, but like anything, it does require some up-front knowledge about
selecting the best herbs, as well as knowing the right time to dry them, but the truth is, there is no one, single
recipe which is 'classic' or even 'traditional'.
I took this week off as vacation, which means that I do some annual cleaning in the greenhouse, repotting South African bulbs and cyclamen, and cleaning out my kitchen cabinets - not very romantic. It also means that I usually order new spices and herbs, getting ready for autumn baking, pickle and canning season and the holidays when I usually realize too late that I am out of whole Nutmeg.As my order from Penzey's Spices arrived, it came along with a free bottle of  'Herbes de Provençe' - a mixture of herbs common in the south of France where is is reportedly used for everything from roasted poultry to custards. But curious me wanted to know more about this herb mixture, and what I found out might surprise you ( it surely surprised me). 

Herbes de Provence, drying herbs from the garden
Basic Herbes de Provence consists of just a few herbs - tarragon, thyme, rosemary and oregano, in a 25% ratio.
We should all be familiar with 'Herbes de Provençe', the herbal mix that many American know and have, but few know how to use ( try grilled meats, egg dishes and chicken breast). We know the mixture of dried herbes as it often comes in fancy containers, sometimes with a cork lid, or an olive wood scoop, and generally found at posh gourmet stores in fancy crocks with hand-written lables. In many ways, Herbes de Provençe is over-rated, with many chefs snubbing their noses at the mixture which really, can be created with a bit of every herb found in ones pantry already, but I've found that with just a little research, the story behind Herbes de Provençe is more like that of curry spice mixes - the 'idea' existed for a long time before a commercial mix ever became available, and also like many curry mixes today, the exact recipe can be a different brand by brand, or grandmother by grandmother, as the original Herb mixture was simple gathered from ones garden or countryside, and varied from valley to mountaintop. These herb mixtures can be a thumbprint of each creator, each home chef, or each grandmother. 

I think it's time to deep dive into the "Frenchiest" mixture I can create myself, from my garden, and maybe you can create one too. Click below my journey into Provençe for more:

March 6, 2013


Cut flower sweet peas are one of the most amazing flowers a gardener can ever experience, but they are not always the easiest to grow. Here is the story about how I raised long stemmed English sweet peas this year.

Last year I became obsessed with English Spencer Sweet Peas - so variety grown by true Sweet Pea enthusiasts in England and elsewhere, because of its characteristically large blossoms and long, long stems. Once the most popular cut flower in America ( in 1900), today, the sweet pea is still somewhat scarce, which just means that you will need to grow your own from seed, as this is another one of those annuals that you will not find in garden centers as seedlings ( and, you shouldn't, as the best plants are those grown from seed in your own garden). As many of you know, I sort of became a little too obsessed last year, even having a party to celebrate their mass blooming in June. Since many of you have shared an interest in trying to grow Spencer Sweet Peas yourselves, here is a photo-heavy step-by-step post on how I grow mine. Enjoy!

Sweet Pea enthusiasts use a new type of pot called a root trainer, and the name Rootrainer is also a brand. Google it, if you think you can invest in a set ( they are not cheap, but they are reusable). Some people use toilet paper tubes ( silly, really, and not horticulturally sound as they will decay long before you can transplant your seedlings). Root trainers allow seedlings to produce long roots, essential with sweet peas, especially since you will be pinching the seedlings to encourage even more roots in the first few weeks of growth. Of course you can use most any pot, yogurt containers - what ever you feel comfortable with, but look for deeper containers rather than shallow ones. Sweet peas dislike root disturbance, so Root Trainers allow you to unfold the pot, and slide the root ball out with a minimum of disturbance. With regular pots, you will just need to carefully tap and slide out the root ball.

Varieties are important, and I encourage you to seek out the Spencer variety if you are large flowers and long stems. You certainly can use American seed strains if you wish, but I assure you that the flowers will be smaller, and the stems shorts. Heirloom varieties exist, and they are often more fragrant, but the true Spencer strain forms have the newest varieties - those grown for exhibition in England, and I believe the largest foliage and flowers. Grown side-by-side with American Royal sweet peas, you will instantly see the difference. I order mine from Owl's Acre in England, but there are many sources in the UK and even from California (although, I honestly would just look at the Sweet Pea Society website in England, and check out their source list - these growers grow two crops a year, to ensure the freshest seed - one crop in the UK, and then one crop in New Zealand during their summer). I cannot stress the importance of getting the finest seed you can get.

I sow seed starting in late February, but also as late as mid March ( I am late this year). I sow two seed per cell, and then I pull one out and toss it, keeping the strongest seedling to grow on. At the second leaf stage ( above) I pinch the growing tip out ( it's what the professional exhibitors do). This encourages more roots, which is so important for sweet peas as the vines will grow 8 to 10 feet tall, and by mid summer, the hot temperatures will require plants to have deep and strong roots.

Starting in mid March, I start bringing plants outdoors to harden them off. All peas love cold weather, and many can handle light frosts. At first, I bring the flats of root trainers back into the greenhouse, but by late March, I leave them outside all night, only protecting them if snow threatens.

In the third week of March, I start setting out the strongest seedlings into a prepared bed. I don't add manure from the chicken and duck coops into the soil because one must control the nitrogen level, but I do add bone meal and a drench of tomato fertilizer ( 2.5.5), along with compost. I use cloches to protect plants from heavy early frosts.

These pinched seedlings show how the root trainers work. Yes, I forgot to pull out the extra seedling here, but at this stage, I can still snip off or pinch out the two weaker stems.
 In the rear, you can see the bamboo cordon system I use - 8 foot bamboo canes, attached to a wire which extends between two snow fence poles. This creates a very sturdy structure which you will need once the vines mature and bloom.

Seedlings after being set out, watered and fertilized. One plant per cane. I know, I know, a little crazy, but wait till you see the results.  This is exactly the same way exhibition sweet peas are grown in England. If you think this is silly, I can say that the foliage on the sweet pea plants grown this way is four times larger than those on conventionally grown vines. The goal at this point? Strong roots, so I pinch plants again just after planting. Don't worry, you will be surprised at how pinching early will stimulate plants to produce side shoots which will be even larger and more sturdy than the original growing point.  For some reason, side shoots are massive  and more aggressive than those on un-pinched plants.

After pinching, strong shoots will emerge from the base of the seedling. At this point, around May 15th, you will need to start tying vines to the canes ( they will not grasp on by themselves).

I use vinyl tape for tying sweet peas, as it does not damage the stem, it stretches and ties easily. I know, it is not environmentally sound, but it just means that I must collect the pieces at the end of the season. Many UK growers use this material for staking tomatoes and sweet peas. Its' very soft, and will not harm the plant.

By June 1st, vines will start to grow incredibly quickly, almost 3 inches a day. Have twine or tape ready, for they will need to be tied every other day or so. I tie at each internode. It's a pleasant task, relaxing after a long day at work, just listening to the robins, and making little bows.  I've tried twine, rope, twistems, but this soft plastic ribbon is the best, as sweet pea stems are winged, and tear easily with even thick twine. If you want to be more organic, you may want to try cutting fabric or cloth ribbon. I think the trick here is a flat material and not a round one, which will cut into the stem.

Tendrils emerge at the end of each leaflet, and they will need to be cut off, or this will happen. They will grasp onto bud and nearby leaves, encircling them and causing havoc. Carry a pair of little scissors, and snip all tendrils off.

Flower stems need to grow tall and long, and tendrils will cause trouble. Again, it is a strangely pleasant task, snipping off tendrils every day after work in the evening. Sometimes, tending to plants with snips and ties, can be like therapy.

By mid june, flower buds will appear, and extend long and tall. If the first set yellows and falls off, don't dispair, but keep an eye out for virus' and aphids. If you are lucky, soon will will have amazing long stems of fragrant sweet peas.

Some of these stems are 18 inches long, with blossoms nearly 2-3 inches in diameter. Properly grown sweet peas are amazing and impressive, probobly because we rarely ever see them, even at florists. Once you grow your own sweet peas, you will understand their charm and respect why they were so popular a hundred years ago when people cared about such things.

The color palette with Spencer Sweet Peas is unmatched. coral, cerise, periwinkle - some of the purest  colors seen outside of Valentines Day or the My Little Pony aisle at Target. I can say that, because I know :). The Yummiest colors of any flower, indeed. So go get your sweet peas on!

Awesome pictures to follow:

January 27, 2013

Winter Marmalade

This weekend I was inspired by my neighbor and fellow blogger Kim who posted last week on her bird watching blog The Curious Birder, how she made some Meyer Lemon marmalade and other goodies.
On this freezing cold, snowy weekend, I think that this sound like just the thing to raise my spirits. 
A selection of home-grown citrus from my greenhouse. Starting from the bottom ( the big one), Citron 'Etrog'. as is the slice to the left. above that Meyer Lemons, Australian Finger Limes, Limequats and the tiny Indian Kumquat, Fortunella hindsii, the smallest pea-sized citrus that I grow.

Inspired by a few posts from blogger friends who seem to always make marmalade in during the winter (traditional marmalade is indeed a winter craft in Mediterranean climates, as citrus ripen during the winter months). As I keep a about ten varieties of citrus in my greenhouse here in central Massachusetts, I figured that I might as well try making some, otherwise, the citrus only gets used in tea, and a few drinks, and that's about it. Maybe it's time to use some of my organically grown citrus for something more useful.

Look - if Martha Stewart Living magazine can run two different covers, I thought I would too.
A quick graphic treatment for my post, but I still need to design my labels. Later this week.
Here is my Meyer Lemon Marmalade with Mandarins & Lavender
(recipe from the Blue Chair Jam Cookbook by Rachel Saunders).

This weekend I made three types of home made marmalade. I began on Friday on a mission to make plain-old Meyer Lemon marmalade, but then I discovered all of these other citrus species and varieties growing as I picked the Meyers. It seems to obvious to not explore other recipes beyond mere lemon. I pulled out my BLUE JAM COOK BOOK and also searched on-line for the most interesting marmalade recipes that I could find. I selected three recipes. The first, maximized the unusual large Citron 'Etrog' that I had. Commonly used in many Jewish cultural recipes, I combined two recipes that featured 'Etrog', and I added a few Meyer Lemons to balance out the flavor. 

Meyer Lemons formed the base for all three Marmalade's. Mild, sweet and fruity, when prepared as marmalade, it can be rather one-note and not as lemony or bitter as true lemons, so I combined my Meyer Lemons with other citrus.
The second marmalade come from an old French Recipe that I found in my mothers notes - Bouquet des Fleurs, traditionally made in the south of France with a wide selection of rare varieties of citrus, as well as a touch of lavender. This seemed perfect, as I had about 7 varieties of citrus handy, surely, this could be called a bouquet. 

Most of the work in making any marmalade comes in the beginning, and I should note that most recipes suggest three-day long procedures ( I cheated and did this all in two days), but by far, the most difficult task is carefully cutting the fruit into thin slices. A sharp paring knife is handy, so  you won't crush the peel and fruit while slicing.

The third type of marmalade comes from the BLUE CHAIR COOK BOOK - Meyer Lemon and Kumquat. I had three types of Kumquats, which are so delicious when picked fresh from the tree - nothing at all like store bought fruit, as the oil-rich peels taste like orange blossoms to me, something store-bought fruit lose. Even store bought Meyer Lemons will not have the strong lemony citrusy oil scent and flavor in their peels that home-grown fruit have. I really don't know why I haven't done this before - it's time for this costly greenhouse help supply this kitchen with some produce.

Having the proper tools helps immensly, and that starts with a proper confiture pot - a Bassine à confiture makes all the difference in the world. Costly, it's something to look out for on EBay ( a friend of mine found a vintage one there) or from an on-line retailer. Look - you'll have it for life, and the wide surface area and copper make jam and jelly making effortless. You will never need to buy pectin as the proper evaporation will occur.
Once the citrus are sliced into elegant long strips or slices, depending on the recipe, the long process begins. All recipes will have you soak the sliced fruit for 24 hours ( important, to remove the bitterness and to soften the rind), then they all deviate. Some require you to first boil the fruit and then drain it in a colander for another 24 hours, as I did with the Blue Jam Cookbook recipe which asked for me to create a mandarin orange extraction that took two days, but most will have you start the actual process of boiling the soaked fruit with sugar, and if you are using a confiture, this part is easy. You will have marmalade in about 30 minutes.

Cut branches of Cornus mas still bloom in the kitchen window as two batches of marmalade come together.
The windows got so steamy, that I could not watch the bird feeders. Yeah - that mess on top of my stove are trays of seedlings that require soil temperatures over 75º F, like the artichoke seedlings. This is my secret spot!

Once you start on the final part of a marmalade recipe, the cooking in the confiture, the entire process happens quite quickly. Be careful, stirring too much will case more air bubbles as the water evaporates, yet you must stir ever minute or so, to avoid caramalization ( which happened to me on my second batch, as I had to go send an email logo to someone). I assume many of you are jam makers, as the garden and jam making go hand in hand, but I encourage you to use your home grown citrus - even if you use your house plant citrus, just be certain that they are organic, and for this reason, never use store bought plants with fruit on them, for most likely, they have been treated with an systemic insecticide, which can take a year or more to work its way out of a plants tissues.

Sweet, sour and Tangy, homemade mixed citrus marmalade will warm any ones hearts on a cold, winter day. Steamy windows, frosty panes of glass, and the scent of fresh lemons, oranges and limes. I am so glad that I took the time to do this today, I needed something to take my mind off of what is happening at work right now.

Jars await a hot water bath processing. I process mine for 25 minutes as it helps reduce the amount of air bubbles.

Naturally, have everything ready to work with when you make marmalade, for unlike jam and jelly, it is difficult to reheat and soften the marmalade once it begins to set, as too much caramalization will occur. Have all of your jars and glassware sterilized either in the dishwasher, or in the oven, and have your jar rubbers boiling along with the lids on the stove. Keep plenty of fresh linens at the ready, as well as a couple of pots of boiling water, as one you will need for wash cloths to clean the rims, as marmalade making is a sticky process, and the other pot will come in handy when you process the finished jars, as the hot water bath will often need topping off, and in the winter, one does not want to add ice cold water to hot, glass jars.

A jar of Etrog Citron and Kumquat Marmalade that I shot in the greenhouse, with a sprig of some of the smaller Kumquats ( Forunella hindsii) that I also added. This is the batch that I almost burnt when I had to go send the logo to someone, but it still tastes fine, and I think I even like the more caramel taste. 

I also made a loaf of French bread that I started yesterday using my standby no-kneading recipe from Jim Lahey's book MY BREAD. His no knead method has become a stand-by in my kitchen for crispy, French loaves.

Well, after all, they are from the British Isles.


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