Archive for February, 2009

Pruning pointers

Trees aren’t the only ones whose sap rises in springtime.  The balmy weather we’ve been having is driving every gardener I know crazy with desire; they’re frenzied with wanting to get out, get planting, and get growing. 


But before you content yourself with pruning, keep in mind that a little restraint is a good thing. 


Looking at a plant that needs pruning can be daunting.  The branches go everywhere and gardeners do one of two things:  either they freeze at the brink of making cuts, or they chop away, never stopping to look at the results until it’s too late.


This last approach was my brother-in-law’s method when pruning overgrown upright junipers on either side of the front window.  The result was breathtaking; two vertical trunks with a feathering of foliage – tufted totem poles instead of trees – was all that was left of once full-figured evergreens.


Don’t let this happen to you.  Remember, pruning is not a race, and gardeners who flail about with sharp tools and no plan can expect to have amazingly awful plant shape.  There is no hat big enough to cover the blunder.


crossing branches

Yet pruning need not be a reason for panic.  Start with the easy stuff, by removing any broken or competing branches, and often the twigs needing more cuts reveal themselves.  Competing branches are those that rub against one another, or block other shoots, developing wounds that disease enters.  Prune one of the two rubbing branches off to allow the other to grow.


prune broken branch  clean up torn bark












Once this is completed, stand back and look over the plant to see if these few snips have left the plant misshapen.  Take time to consider what other cuts will help the plant maintain its form, or remove anything that blocks walkways, seating areas or drives. 


In all, removal of up to one-third of the plant will be fine, provided the tree is young.  Should it be more mature, removal of up to one-quarter of the overall plant is the limit.  Large branches over two-inches in diameter shouldn’t be pruned unless there is a jolly good reason.  They don’t seal well and disease could be a problem.  If you must remove a larger limb, do so over several seasons by cutting back one-third of the branch each year instead of lopping them off in one fell swoop. 


ALWAYS use the three-cut pruning method for removing limbs two-inches in diameter or larger to keep bark from tearing.  The first cut is made about 12 inches from the trunk, sawing upwards into the bottom of the branch.  Next, move out from the trunk another inch, and saw down through the branch from the top.  The final cut is made at the trunk, just outside of the branch collar.


You don’t always have to take off the whole branch.  You can partially prune to shape, by making the cut (called a heading cut) one-quarter inch in front of a growing bud.  Choose a bud that will grow in a direction that is outward from the plant and will not cross other branches.  If the plant is near a walkway, choose a bud that will grow above head height or away from the walk.


Should the entire branch need to be removed, make the cut one-quarter inch in front of the branch collar.  The collar is a ridge of slightly thickened wood surrounding the junction of branch to trunk.  If care is taken not to nick this collar, the wound will seal over and the tree will remain healthy.  Longer stubs of more than a quarter inch will not allow the tree to seal the pruning cut, looking nubby and unsightly on the tree.





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Amy Goldman is on a mission to keep heirlooms in the hands of those who grow and enjoy them.  Chairperson of Seed Savers Exchange and author of The Heirloom Tomato, she spoke with alarm of the seedless tomato offered by Burpee.  “Breeding the life out of a fruit is anathema to me.  Taking seeds out of the hands of gardeners and farmers is the ultimate in seed monopoly.  For the last 11,000 years it’s farmers and gardeners who have domesticated all of our food crops and passed seed along to next generation.”

Order seeds now to start your own gourmet garden.

Order seeds now to start your own gourmet garden.


Goldman’s concern for preserving the diversity of plants goes far beyond the limits of a backyard garden; like the plants she champions she looks to the welfare of generations who will follow us.  “In a world of homogenized taste where industrial agriculture dominates, heirlooms are the natural alternative and give biodiversity – they’re the genetic reservoir of our croplands. That’s our common legacy heritage and birthright, but it’s disappearing at a rate of one- or two-percent per year.


“We need to preserve the past – the future depends on the past,” she said in a telephone interview from Long Island, New York.  Dependence on the hybridized plants from a few seed companies reduces the variety of food finding its way to dinner tables, with flavor and nutrition giving way to convenience. 


Should all gardens be reduced to a handful of plant choices – often the same as those commercially produced – the kaleidoscope of flavor, texture and aromas that fill our homes would turn pale.


“It’s not just that they’re breeding the life out of tomatoes – they’re breeding the flavor out too,” she said, “It’s the seeds and the gel that surrounds them that gives a lot of flavor to the tomato, because that’s where the acid lurks.  I can never understand when some chefs or cooks take the seeds and the gel out – they’re taking out half the flavor.


“But that’s the bottom line, isn’t it?  The flavor.  I love to feed people… (and when working on this book)…nothing went to waste, whether it went into my soup pot or their soup pot.  One of the great joys is sharing the bounty with others.”


Passion for the food she grows has led to several books that delve deeply into growing – and eating – popular garden staples.  Melons for the Passionate Grower inspires readers to love the sweet, succulent fruit, and the Compleat Squash will have you plowing up the front, side, and backyards just to grow the rambling vines.

Heirlooms are our heritage.

Heirlooms are our heritage.


If Goldman knows she’s the pied piper leading us along the path to obsession, she doesn’t show it.  Witty, gracious, she plants herself firmly in the group of devoted green thumbs bemused by the surprises that garden has in store each year.  “This is how it gets out of control – one thing leads to another.  But isn’t it time we got back to real tomatoes?  Heirlooms are real tomatoes – these are real vegetables.”


So what tomatoes will you be trying this year?  Along with Goldman’s Italian American, I’m trying Stump of the World, Pruden’s Purple, Gold Medal, Great White, Jaune Flamme, and Orange Russian 117.


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In a dramatic move to break with traditional agriculture (a little, let’s not get too hasty), the USDA on February 12 began breaking up pavement at their facility in Washington, D.C. to establish a community garden.  From their press release  :

“Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today “broke pavement” on the inaugural USDA The People’s Garden during a ceremony on the grounds of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) commemorating the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln. The Secretary declared the stretch of pavement permanently closed and returned back to green, and encouraged other Administration officials and the general public to join in to protect the Chesapeake watershed.


“It is essential for the federal government to lead the way in enhancing and conserving our land and water resources,” said Vilsack. “President Obama has expressed his commitment to responsible stewardship of our land, water and other natural resources, and one way of restoring the land to its natural condition is what we are doing here today – “breaking pavement” for The People’s Garden.”

I’m delighted by this, and tickled by the notion that Sec’ty Vilsack took a sledge hammer to break the pavement – it means he’s on his way to understanding the pain of gardening in Colorado.  We have pavement too – only we call it soil.  A further excerpt from the release:

“During today’s ceremony, Secretary Vilsack announced the goal of creating a community garden at each USDA facility worldwide. The USDA community garden project will include a wide variety of garden activities including Embassy window boxes, tree planting, and field office plots. The gardens will be designed to promote “going green” concepts, including landscaping and building design to retain water and reduce runoff; roof gardens for energy efficiency; utilizing native plantings and using sound conservation practices. ”

I’ve recently been to Washington, and they already have lovely planter boxes dotting the sidewalks.  Actually, they’re anti-tank buffers in case anyone tries to drive their hummer through the door of the IRS or EPA, but because they didn’t want those ugly concrete blocks to look like fortification against the people, they festooned them with plants to soften their image.

How nice that they’ll be planted with food for visitors to eat, a kind of strolling salad bar for the masses.  Still, the first step to bringing people back to growing food is a step in the right direction.  So three cheers for Sec’ty Vilsack!

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One of the drawbacks to moving plants indoors for the winter is that they bring their friends with them. You find a sunny nook for the plant to enjoy, coddle it for a few months, watering or giving it the odd shot of fertilizer. Everything’s fine.

But then odd things begin in other areas of the home. At first, one or two tiny flies wing lazily through the house. No big deal, you ignore them. But they meet, go out for a few drinks and woo one another until suddenly, you’re playing host to a brood of fungus gnats.

They gather around the plants, partying and procreating, fly around computer screens as if it contains the Wisdom of Solomon, and explore faces and nostrils in a quest for glory. You play dumb when guests visit, vainly hoping the gnats won’t make an appearance, but they do. You can always tell – your guests are flailing at the air when they think you’re not looking.

It’s time for biological warfare. But first, a bit on fungus gnats, so you know your enemy. Contrary to popular myth, they don’t spring from the dust of plants in spontaneous generation. They’re native to our area and find their way to potted plants spending summer outdoors. Fungus gnats lay eggs in the soil and once hatched the larvae (maggots, but who wants to know that) graze on fungi in the dirt, or nibble on the fine roots of the plant.

Experts may tell us they don’t harm the plant, and this is true, but they annoy the heck out of us. Get a grip on your gnats by:

– Find the mother ship by placing a slice of raw potato on the soil surface for approx. 4 hours. This gives your guests something to talk about other than your cooking. Turn the potato over and look for the maggots – they’re creamy white with a shiny black head.

– Once you’ve found the culprits, several choices for weaponry can be had. You could go with parasitic nematodes or predatory mites which are introduced inside your home to hunt down, kill, and eat your gnats in a gruesome enactment of the wild kingdom. For my money, I don’t want anything that, should it polish off the last of the gnats, come looking for me.

– Azadirachtin, a growth regulator that comes from the neem plant. Essentially, this makes it impossible for the bug to molt one it’s gotten too large for its skin. Anyone who’s put on a few pounds over winter can relate – nothing fits. But this may be hard for homeowners to find.

– Bacillius thuringiensis, strain isrealiensis. This is a bacteria found in soil that attacks the second stomach of the insect (they have three), tearing it apart with a protein crystal that acts a lot like those wicked pickled eggs I had at a bar in Des Moines one year. This is a great choice. Look for Knock Out Gnats on line, or if you’re lucky and live in Boulder, check out a little greenhouse supply store in Gunbarrel called Way To Grow. They have small bottles of Gnatrol, a Bt that you can mix up with water and pour on the soil.

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The best advice I’ve ever been given was to grow the type of vegetable that is unique or hard to find.  Cheap, easy run-of-the-mill veggies can be purchased at the grocer’s, but for the love of food, start your plants from seeds.  It’s easy, as long as you have a bit of space and a few lights.  

 What you need:

1.     Table or shelf space for seed trays.

2.     Lights, either grow lights or a combination of cool blue florescent and incandescent bulbs (this is a cheap way to do it).

3.     Chains, ropes, or cords to raise or lower lights during plant growth.

4.     Trays with small soil cells for holding seeds and soil.

5.     Sterile seed starting soil (called media).

6.     Seeds.

7.     Labels.                                                                   

8.     Timer for lights – optional.


Set up an area that will hold the trays once they’ve been planted – think six weeks, minimum, for them to be there.  Lights should be set up to hang directly over the trays at 3 to 4 inches above the plants (make sure you can raise or lower lights).  Timers for lights are handy if you’re like me and don’t want to be a slave to turning your plants on every day. 


Many kinds of seed starting trays are out there: plastic trays with small cells, peat pots, and peat moss in mesh netting are a few.  Choose what you like, but always use only sterile containers and sterile planting media, critical for keeping disease away from plants.  If reusing containers, sterilize plastic or ceramic pots in a 10% bleach solution first.


**Caution – if you bleach your trays, rinse them thoroughly.  I French-fried my seedlings last year when I accidentally got bleach on them. 


The ideal media (soil) for starting seeds is a lightweight, soil-less mixture of peat, vermiculite or perlite and compost.  Plant labels are a must to tell your plants apart!


How to do it:

1.     In a large bowl, mix the potting media with water until damp but not soaked.  If using starter “jiffy pots”, soak in water until peat has completely expanded and the mesh is fully open.

2.     Fill tray cells or pots with damp media.  Don’t pack the cells – allow it to stay light and fluffy.

3.     Using a pencil, skewer, or other small stick, make a hole to depth listed on seed packet by pushing aside media.  Place seeds in hole and smooth over media.

4.     Sprinkle cells with water if media is lightly damp.  If media is wet, don’t add extra water.


Germination of seeds:

1.     Seeds need even humidity to germinate well.  Tent the tray or pots with plastic to increase humidity.

2.     Keep the room at 65ºF and 72ºF.

3.     You don’t need lights for germination of most seeds.  Once plants poke their nose up, lights are critical from then on. 

4.     Once plants have just started to emerge, slowly remove the humidity tent.  To avoid plant shock from tent removal, crack open the tent by shifting it, gradually increasing exposure of plants to average air over following day.


Seedling growth:

1.     Keep lights close to seedlings – 3 to 4 inches – for sturdy plants with strong stems.  Seedlings that are long, spindly and weak are stretching for light – an indication that lights are too far from plants.

2.     Water seedlings from the bottom of the tray.   

a.      Over watering seedlings causes root rots or damping off fungus.  To avoid having these problems, keep seedlings evenly watered and allow the media to dry out to the touch. 

b.     A water-borne fungus causes damping off.  The fungus, a rhyzoctonia, attacks seedlings at the soil surface and results in a pinched stem and death of the seedling. 

3.     Once the first true leaves have opened, fertilize with half-strength fertilizer once per week. 

4.     Provide a small fan to circulate air gently across tray surface, to develop strong stems.

5.     Pot up seedlings into the next size larger pot during their growth indoors. 


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My husband handed me an article from the paper, a Bud Wells column on the new Lexus IS250.  That’s right – a car, so when I glanced at the first two paragraphs, I handed it back saying “I’m not going to read this.”    Please understand:  the writer talks about split torque and traction advantages, and I’d just as soon take a hammer blow to the head than read that because I’m just not into cars.


But ooohhh, let me while away my time pouring over seed catalogs, with their seductive phrases of “tolerance to a third race of fusarium wilt,” or “monogerm seeds contain only one embryo, eliminating the need to thin,” and I’m a quivering jelly of a girl.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I love the fourth season of gardening:  shopping.


If you’ve never ventured out of the super marts or grocery stores into the world of catalogs and garden centers, let me lead you into temptation.  There’s a bevy of choices, from internet to glossy mags to locally owned retailers filled with vegetables and fruits that will rock your world.


There’s no need to stay with the standard “Better Boy” tomato (unless you love it), when Pruden’s Purple, Jeaunne Flamme, or Zapotec will win your heart.  Potatoes transcend russet or Yukon gold into purple Vikings, red caribes or German butterballs.  And you’ll never look an iceberg in the eye again after you’ve tastes the crisp, sweet flavor of freckles or Merveille de Quatres Saison lettuce.


You – yes, YOU, deserve better than the big box offerings of plants that deliver less than quality fare.  No, the modern kitchen gardener is savvy enough to grow food that isn’t hybridized past the ability to taste great.


Get out.  Get shopping.  Look for locally adapted varieties and heirlooms.  You’ll find a new world opens to your kitchen.


Try these great resources:


Botanical Interests  botanicalinterests.com


Reneees Garden Seeds – reneesgarden.com/


Cook’s Garden  – cooksgarden.com/


Seed Savers Exchange – seedsavers.org/


Seeds of Change – seedsofchange.com/

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What an awful day – beautiful blue sky, with not a cloud to be seen.  Warm temperatures in the upper 60’s.  No breeze. This is early February; the weather should be cool and moist, keeping our trees, shrubs and plants dormant for a little while longer.  But because Mother Nature has been feeling warm and giving, our crocus are blooming, the hellebores are awake and buds are swelling on fruit trees.


This has catastrophe written all over it.  If you live along the Front Range you know this mid-winter thaw has an evil twin that lurks around the corner, waiting to freeze our buds off.


The only thing we can do is pamper the plants by giving them water, and hope that the secondary buds survive until spring.  Woody plants have several sets of buds for such a disaster, and as long as their roots are given water, they’ll be fine in the spring.


When:  Water once per month now through March if we don’t get an inch of water thorough snow or rain. 

Make it easy:  Measure snowfall at your house with a ruler – don’t rely on total accumulation listed in the news.  Write each storm’s amount on your calendar and add it up every four weeks.  If it’s less than 12 inches of snow, it’s time to water. 


  How:  Warm days when temperatures are above 40 are best for watering.  Choose days when no snow is on the ground and the soil isn’t frozen.  In cold weather, water should be trickled slowly into the soil.

Make it easy:  Coil a soaker hose so that it spirals out from around the tree and leave it there for use over the next few months.  Long hoses can be used to water several trees of the same size at the same time.  Have an inexpensive timer on the faucet automatically shut off the hoses, or set timers in the house to remind you to turn off water.


  Where:  The dripline of the tree is the best place to water, which is the area directly under the tips of the branches.   The place to soak is two to three feet on either side of the dripline, to a depth of 12 inches.

Tip for success:  Soil needles work best if the ground is soft, and be sure to insert it only eight inches deep.  The roots taking up water are shallow, in the top 12 inches of the soil.


  How much:  Researchers are still working on this, but a good rule of thumb is to give your trees 10 gallons of water per diameter inch of trunk for them to survive. 



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Hello world!

Just getting started in the blogosphere after spending most of my life in the garden.  We’re under construction right now, but check back regularly for posts on gardening for the time-challenged; that is, those of us who squeeze it in after getting off work at five.

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