December 5, 2012

The New Christmas Cactus

Schlumbergera 'Thor Carmen' has purple bud which open brilliant carmine red, a new variety, it is beginning to show up for sale at some online retailers, and on Ebay.
 Behold the modern Christmas cactus. These are not your mothers' Christmas cactus nor your Grandmothers. New varieties and strains are being introduced every year, and even though these new varieties may take decades to reach us through traditional commercial growers, they are available from collectors and small, specialist growers. If you are seeking new yellow flowered forms, or fringed white types that look like snowflakes, or mutated green and magenta flowered ones with flowers that are deformed so much that they look like grasshoppers, then these new Christmas Cactus are for you.

My collection grows each year, as we introduce four or five new varieties each winter. I am partial to the yellow, brownish bronze and peach varieties, as well as pure white, but I am becoming more interested in bicolored forms, those which white petals, but edged in pink or purple.

Yellow Christmas Cactus are always a favorite, they balance out a windowsill collection, and today, there are many improved yellow forms.

Schlumbergera x 'Aspen', a new fringed white-flowered Christmas cactus that has petals which look like shredded snowflakes. It's hot, hot, hot right now, with cuttings selling for $25 on Ebay.Difficult to find as it sells out quickly, it is currently available via mailorder from Logee's.

Many of these Christmas cactus are difficult to find, as mass market growers are still growing older forms, but you can find them available from specialist nurseries online, and from collectors on Ebay. Like any newer introduction, it often takes time for many to catch on. If a new plant can be micro-propagated, as in a test tube, then new varieties can come to market quickly, but most of these newer varieties are still rather uncommon, and thus, their prices remain high. The variety 'Aspen' was selling for nearly $100 five years ago, and although last year it was available from a couple of growers, it quickly sold out. I purchased my plant for $25 dollars last spring, and Logee's Greenhouses in CT. is currently selling it for $19. They also have a newer red-form of this popular fringed variety, also on my wish list.

Christmas cactus can form long-lived specimen plants, often becoming family heirlooms, being passed down from generation to generation ( I still have some plants that were my mothers from the 1940's). They root easily from cuttings, and are true gift and share plants. You may think that they are too old-fashioned, but that's the appeal - they are timeless, and special in the same way that an old Christmas ornament can be timeless. Their flowers visit us, nostalgically each year.

I am trying to collect as many cultivars as possible, so if any of you have a favorite, please let me know. I am aware of curious mutant forms, old species, bronze and brownish flowered forms and the new fringed types. Any suggestions are welcome. Most of these newer varieties are some you will never find at a supermarket or greenhouse, which makes them even more interesting, not unlike African Violets, where the finest varieties are available only from collectors and small, specialist nurseries and not from commercial growers. This is true with many plants, daylilies to orchids. Take note.

'Christmas Flame', a newer yellow form of Schlumbergera will achieve maximum yellowyness if not exposed to cold temperatures. If I kept this in the cold greenhouse, or too close to the window, it would have more magenta on the edge of each petal. If kept warm while in bud, the blossoms remain yellow-peach.
 One of the most common questions I get is "How can I get my Christmas cactus to bloom for Christmas?" The answer is simple, but not always easy to achieve. Christmas cactus respond to daylength, and they will set bud in October if kept dry and on a natural day-length schedule. This means that even if you keep your plants on a windowsill in a room which you do not use, you must be certain that a streetlight is not near by. My plants sit in the greenhouse, and they get natural daylight without any artificial light, and the plant set bud exactly at the same time with no effort.

While actively growing in the late spring and early summer, Schumbergera are active feeders, responding to water soluable fertilizer well, which keeps the plants a rich, bright green. The plants summer outdoors under a tree, where they do not get any direct sun, but in the winter, they live on a high bench in the greenhouse where they get full sun.

Schumbergera 'Christmas Fantasy', another new variety with those amazing yellow tints.

December 2, 2012

The Winter Harvest Garden


Even without a hoophouse, we are able to harvest fresh vegetables through most of December directly from our raised beds. Napa Cabbage, lettuce and other greens such as arugula and Swiss Chard are still being harvested with plenty left. This surprises visitor since we have had a couple of weeks of very cold weather, where temperatures reached far below 32º F, and as low as 22º F on Friday night. With little protection, these late crops show no damage, aside from some squirrel damage, since now the critters have discovered how crispy and sweet this Napa Cabbage is. Sown in late August, the plants grew quickly into small heads of crispy Chinese Cabbage which we have been using in Chinese Winter Sesame salad ( with a dressing made with mayonnaise, toasted sesame seed oil, rice wine vinegar, siracha tossed and then served with cilantro, cucumber, lime and a sprinkle of brilliantly red pomegranate seeds.).

 Fancy French lettuce varieties are so crispy and freeze resistant when grown outdoors, that I am amazed at how low they can go, where if grown in the spring or summer, they would die if exposed to freezing temperatures. These Lollo forms are choice in fancy markets, and hard to find around here since the closest Whole Foods is an hour away. They are so curly that they look like curly parsley which is why they are popular in European markets and garden centers. This varieties make perfectly perfect salads especially when paired with our homemade dressing which is made with garden fresh heirloom Russian violet garlic, home made cider vinegar and our own honey.

December 1, 2012

Of Mouses and Men

The bird feeding season is in full swing in our garden, especially with a nice, December snowfall. Here,  a Tufted Titmouse enjoys a snack of sunflower seeds.

Feeding birds in our garden has a long history which reaches far back to the early 2oth century, when in the 1920's my dad, his brothers and my grandparents fed birds during the winter months. You could even that that due to our gardens unique location, just south of a populated city, yet attached to a woodland, that it could be considered a birding hotspot, not unlike central park in NYC ( but smaller!). I am discovering a renewed obsession this winter with birdwatching and bird feeding. Today, Jow an I just completed a feeding stations consisting of a 50 foot wire with 6 feeders, two thistle, one hopper feeder and a table top feeder. Along with two suet feeders, I think it's safe to say that I've gone off the deep end once again. Then again, I suppose it is already in me genes.

Some sightings at our feeders on this first day of feeding ( clockwise from upper left) A female Downy Woodpecker rests on a Japanese Maple trunk as I affix some suet to a new feeder. Next, a stunning Red-Bellied Woodpecker arrived just after lunch (new bird for my life-list!).  Finally, a purple House Finch patiently waits while some squirrels tested the seed.

OK...so Titmice. What's the deal with that name? As a child, my brothers and I would all snicker when we would hear my dad say that he needed to go feed the titmice, but really? Where did this name come from? And with that said, should they be called titmice or titmouses?

The answer is actually quite interesting....