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Archive for November, 2010

It takes time to get back in the swing after a Thanksgiving break, so while I’m gathering thoughts and thinking of blog posts, here’s one from my archives.  From December, 2007.

This time of year can be stressful on plants, and unless one is careful, the effects go beyond a mere crumpled leaf or broken branch.  So, with apologies to Clement Clarke Moore, a poem to remind us of good care:

Twas a late winter night when all through the house, chaos was brewing ‘twixt foliage and spouse.  Many plants woo us with blooms during the holidays, but before you commit to taking one home, check to make sure you have the enough space.  Dodging large floor plants or maneuvering past tabletop flora while carrying decorations can lead to stress.

The tree was purchased, dragged home in a net, on the floor a spot cleared for it to be set.   Trees should be carefully located in an area out of the way from traffic, avoiding sources of heat, fireplaces or electrical outlets.  Before bringing your cut tree inside, take time to empty a spot with plenty of space to allow for set up and trimming.

The cacti were blooming, their bright flowers cheered; on the mantle with evergreens did kalanchoe peer.  Cool temperatures are best for prolonging the bloom on flowering plants.  If possible, set thermostats at 55 to 60 degrees at night, and 65 to 68 during the day.  Choose a location with bright, indirect light – directly in front of an east or west facing window is best – or focus a grow light on them in dimmer locations.

When to my wonder guests did arrive, dragging three children, two dogs and cold drafts inside.  Cold door drafts and traffic around branches are a plant’s bane, so take care to ensure that they’re not near entryways.  When carrying items in from the car, remember that drafts from open doors can rapidly chill these tropical beauties, and close the door in between trips.

My plants were in peril, trampled leaves had big holes; the poinsettia whooshed by like a slapshot on goal.  In general, plants and parties don’t mix well.  Happy tails and incautious guests can damage leaves or knock the plant over, leaving it looking the worse for wear after the fete.  Enjoy your plant’s flowering display from a safe location, out of the way from harm.

Off by the tree there arose such a clatter, of branches and bows and bells in a scatter.  Electricity fizzled, this was not what was planned – we’d forgotten to secure the tree to the stand.  The base of the tree should be cut as level as possible, without angles or points, so that it sits firmly in the stand.  Place fresh cut trees in a sturdy, stable stand with a ring large enough to encompass the trunk, or use open stands for thicker trunk size. Pick a stand with an adequate water reservoir for the tree.

Water was everywhere, the floor was a mess – the tree dropped its needles as if getting undressed.   Pines need water to keep their needles supple and attached to the tree.  But the cut end seals off with resin, preventing water from getting to the branches.  The longer a tree stays on the lot without water, the more likely it is to drop needles early.  Look for fresh trees with a firm grip on their foliage, and preserve your tree by making a new cut one inch from the end of the tree and plunging the end into warm water.  Keep the tree in one gallon of water from this point on, without allowing it to dry out.  

But the children were safe (though the dogs they barked faster) as we rushed in to fix the yuletide disaster.    But let the lesson be learned from this rhyme with a reason – may both people and plants have a safe holiday season.

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Today’s post can be heard on the public radio show Crop to Cuisine, hosted by Dov Hirsch.

Crop To Cuisine

As a child I grew up eating frozen, pureed, orange squash that came in a box and tasted vaguely of plastic.  Served in a gelatinous slump on my plate, I spent years believing that squash was one food best left in the fields.

But then my father started a garden, a large plot my mother, sister and I tended together.  This is when we discovered acorn squash, which my mother baked with a bit of maple syrup and cream drizzled into the hollow left from the seeds.  One bite of the savory treat, and I was in love. 

The sweet, flaky goodness of winter squash is a hallmark of fall for me, and each year I wait until the time that squash is in season to indulge in its delight.  I wouldn’t dream of buying and eating it out of season, because to me, the passion for food stems from anticipation as much as preparation.

If you’re looking to warm your evenings with savory soup or want a side dish with a little pizzazz, check out the ingredient that makes fall meals special:  winter squash.

Rich, flakey, light, or nutty, these colorful cousins of the thin-skinned zucchini come in a variety of shapes and sizes perfect for feeding a couple or a crowd.  As the days get chilly and shorter, squirrel a few into your pantry to store for winter dishes. 

Delicatas, hubbards, buttercups, and acorn squash all grow well here, along with pie pumpkins and a few of the butternuts.  I like them cut in half and roasted, but use them in other recipes and you’ll realize they’re pretty good cooked many ways.

Spaghetti squash is perfect for those who love pasta, with long, stringy, mild tasting fibers.  Slathered with sauce or outstanding in pesto, the vines are so prolific you only need plant a few.  Cooking it is simple – pop it in the microwave until it’s soft and collapses, then carefully cut it open, remove the seeds and scrape out the squash.

There is one note of caution to cooking spaghetti squash this way:  pierce it thoroughly with a knife before microwaving.  It explodes if you don’t, blowing the microwave door open and spewing squash across the room.  Trust me, that’s not as much fun as it sounds.

 Hubbards always draw my attention.  I’ve always wanted to taste them, but their mammoth size – up to 25 pounds – make them look more like a drilling project than a simple meal.  When I finally got the nerve up to ask an old timer how he cracked the gargantuan gourd open, he smiled and said “the wife tosses it off the garage roof.”

Images of that kind, petite lady climbing a rickety ladder with what amounts to a small hippo in tow flashed through my mind, and I prepared to give that gardener a good tongue lashing on safety in cooking.  But one glance at his laughing eyes had me realizing I was being ribbed, and she didn’t really do that.

But the question persists:  how do you open hubbard?  With an extra tough skin and roly-poly shape, a knife is out of the question.  Fortunately Alton Brown, host of Good Eats, has the best approach:  tapping a cleaver through the squash with a wooden mallet.  This works well on all winter squash.

Smaller, thick-skinned pumpkins are ideal for using in pies or baked goods. Often called sugar pumpkins, they have a very rich, sweet flavor.  Use them immediately – while other winter squashes taste better as they age, the pie pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo) loses its flavor if stored.

Before choosing pumpkins to grow in your patch, try a few this fall:  Black Futsu, a type from Japan, is a funky-looking flattened, warty, deep green pumpkin.  Its looks are deceiving; the flesh is golden with the savory taste of hazelnuts.  And Jahrradale, an Australian grey pumpkin, is very tasty.  The nutty, sweet but not strong flesh is easy to clean and nearly stringless, making baking a snap.

Harvest your winter squash when the skin toughens and isn’t dented by pressure from a fingernail.  But before this happens the skin is tender, so avoid wounding your fruit with a clumsy nail slash by watching for other signs of maturity, such as the stem drying out or the rind turning a deep color (some exceptions apply).

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Christmas cactus

Image via Wikipedia

Did the spiky showoff with brilliant pinks, purples, and reds catch your eye as it dangled from a hanging pot in the local greenhouse?  If you’re the proud owner of a flowering cactus, you’ll find they’re carefree plants that add color to grey winter days. 

 “The three cactus types, Thanksgiving (Schlumbergera truncata), with pointed “teeth” on the stems, Christmas (Schlumbergera x. buckleyi), with rounded tips, and Easter cactus (Hatiora gaertneri), are actually epiphytes.  They live in trees in their native Brazil like orchids, but we grow them in pots here,” says Dr. Steve Newman, Greenhouse Crops Specialist with Colorado State University Extension. 

Although they’re cacti, they don’t grow dry; water yours weekly as the top inch of soil gets dry, and provide it with half-strength fertilizer each time you water.  Every third week, give it clear water instead.  “Because no one likes to stain furniture or carpeting, most people water without letting it run out of the bottom, and salts build up in the soil.  Put the pot in the kitchen sink or bathtub every third watering and let water run though to flush salts out,” said Newman.

Avoid drafty areas for your cactus – chill blasts aren’t good for it.  “But the challenge for large Christmas cactus is keeping it out of traffic areas.  Sections fall off whenever people brush against them.”

The good news is that these sections are easy to root by placing them in a glass of water, and when the roots come out, pot up the section in sterile, everyday potting soil.  While young, the small plant should be guarded against overwatering, so before you give it a drink, check the soil to be sure it’s not wet.

To have your cactus bloom for Thanksgiving or Christmas next year and each year thereafter, mark your calendar for September 19 as the date to begin the reblooming process.  “Living around the 40th parallel as we do, that’s the date to start stimulating plants so they’re blooming in time for Christmas,” says the 25-year veteran of greenhouse growing.  “Poinsettias and cactus – two popular flowering plants – are treated this way.”

 A combination of cool temperatures and darkness is the cue these plants need to bloom, so move the cactus to a place with cool, 60-degree nights and only nine hours of sunlight daily.  After approximately six weeks, Thanksgiving cactus will flower, and after two to three months, Christmas cactus blooms. 

 The secret to eye-popping color is reducing water to the plant after flower buds have formed, says Newman.  Water weekly until after the flower buds begin to swell, then cut back on the water slightly, letting the cactus dry out between watering without getting bone dry.  Blossom color intensifies if the plant dries once flowers start, he said; many growers finish flowering plants this way during the last two to three weeks before they go on sale.

Be aware that too dry will abort the flowers, so to avoid it going too far, get to know your cactus soil by inserting your finger in it up to the first knuckle, just before watering.  Note that moisture level; as you dry down your cactus, check the soil to gauge when it’s a bit drier but not parched. “This is the best water meter ever invented,” says Newman, holding up his hand and indicating the tip of his index finger. 

As flowers unfold, move it out into the room where you want to display it, keeping it in bright, indirect light.  A cool room is best; too much heat can cause flowers to fade and drop quickly, and if the leaves wrinkle, the plant is too dry or too warm.  There’s no need to feed it during blossom, but after flowering, return the cactus to normal care of fertilizing at half strength and watering weekly.

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Pumpkins in throwdown, clockwise from top: Snow White, Mystique, Baby Pam, Winter Luxury, New England Pie, and Kabocha, center.

The last time I stepped into the Boulder Daily Camera, I carried in a container of fish fertilizer that ended up exploding in a miasmic stench over the newsroom floor.  The smell was overwhelming, not leaving even after mopping up, and I was pretty sure it would take a lot to make myself welcome within those walls again.

So this time, I brought pie. 

Not just any pie, but seven types of pumpkin pies, baked from different pumpkin varieties grown by local farmers.  In bringing the treats, I wasn’t just trying to win back the newspaper’s affection; my ulterior motive was to find out which pumpkin tastes the best in the custardy dessert. 

When asked by gardeners which vegetable varieties are the best to grow, I hedge my answers.  It’s not that I don’t have favorites; it’s just that flavor is subjective.  My taste buds are different from theirs.  So I usually stick to suggesting that gardeners shop the farmer’s markets, to taste fruit and vegetables until they find the ones they like.

But with so many varieties of pumpkins to choose from, how can a gardener tell if this pie is better made from one pumpkin or another?  The only way to find out was to have a pumpkin throw down.

Pitching the idea to my editor, Cindy Sutter, was easy:  she’s a food writer and curious about all things edible.  Together, we hatched a plan to gather up six different pumpkins – all touted as delicious pie types – and, using the same recipe for each, make pies for a panel made up of restaurateurs and average Joes to sample.

Local growers were eager to help, since they want to know what is best to grow for their customers.  So in mid-October I set off to pick up a few pumpkins to try.  But what started as a simple seven-squash journey turned into a Volvo full of gourds; the farmers so kind and helpful that they pressed more than one type of pumpkin into the running.  I had to unload the car under cover of darkness so my spouse couldn’t see just how full that car was with pumpkins.

Cindy and I narrowed down the field to six: 

New England Pie – came up often in searches for the definitive pie types, along with Baby Pam, listed below.  Small to medium sized, deep orange color, and perfect roundness makes it a quintessential fall squash; its flavor has long been listed as the choice for pie makers.

Baby Pam Sugar Pie – one of the Sugar Pie pumpkin clan, Baby Pam is touted as a top choice for baking.  Widely grown for market, this medium sized (four pounds) squash is strongly recommended for commercial growers due to its vigor, yield, and medium-sized fruit.

Winter Luxury – an heirloom pumpkin with delicious, smooth flesh and old fashioned flavor.  The orange skin is netted with white, giving the gourd a frosted look.  This was my entry into the taste-off; as a gardener I’m a bit disappointed in the yield of the plant.  From six vines only four pumpkins were produced, which is unacceptable if you only have a small space to grow food.   

Mystique – a small pie pumpkin with medium orange color.  According to the farmer, yields are fairly good with this type, making it attractive for market growers.  The small size – two to three pounds – makes it a perfect one-pie pumpkin.

Kabocha – a Japanese pumpkin with dark green, striped skin was tossed into the mix.  Considered one of the sweetest of the Japanese winter squashes, Kabocha offered an element of the exotic to our pie entries.

Snow White – mammoth in comparison to the smaller pie types, this white-skinned heirloom surprised me.  Cutting open the 10-pounder, the skin was deep red-orange – I had been expecting a lightly colored flesh.  Though yields are average for a pumpkin of this size (one or two per vine), you’ll get enough squash to freeze and use in baking for the rest of the winter.

As the control, Libby’s canned pumpkin was added, on the thought that it was what most people think of as pumpkin for pie.

And the winner is……?  Read the results of the throwdown in Cindy’s article in the Boulder Daily Camera.

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A picture of compost soil

Image via Wikipedia

If your Day of the Dead has turned into a month-long marathon of cleanup, you’re ripe for one of the best ways to recycle your plants into amendment for your soil.  Through the miracle of rot, decaying plants are converted to organic matter that holds water and nutrients for roots to take up. 

Grab a rake and pull up those plants; November is the month to celebrate composting.  Here are few quick and easy tips for getting started:

Pick a sunny, out of the way area at least four-feet by four-feet wide.  If your Home Owner’s Association objects to something decomposing in your yard, use a composting bin to keep things tidy.  Choose one that is well ventilated and allows easy access to the compost for turning.

Gather up green and brown plant material, with twice as much brown as green.  Fresh, green plant parts provide nitrogen to the pile; dry brown material supplies carbon.  Microorganisms need both to turn your garden waste into soil gold.

Avoid resinous wood such as junipers, pine, or spruce; resin keeps the plants from decomposing, increasing the time needed for composting.  Some deciduous tree leaves also take longer, so gardeners wanting a quick batch of compost should avoid oak or cottonwood in their piles. 

 Weeds with seeds and diseased plants should be disposed of in another way; most backyard compost piles don’t get hot enough to kill the seeds or disease.  If you want to compost weeds, clip the seed heads off before tossing the plant on the pile.

Kitchen scraps are good additions to the compost, but not meat, bones, grease, eggs and dairy products that attract animals and insects.  Dog, cat, and human manures should never be added to compost.

For faster composting, chop large material into small chunks before mixing them into the pile.  Leave tree leaves whole so they don’t compact down and smother the pile. 

Layer brown and green material into a pile, adding water with each layer until the pile feels damp, like a sponge.  If the pile is soggy to soaking, add more material in until it dries a little.

There’s no need for soil or compost starter to be added to the pile; microorganisms that break down materials are on the surface of most plant material.  Compost should heat up within a week and be very warm to the touch.

Once it begins to cool, turn it from the outside in and sprinkle with more water to recharge the pile.  Keep turning until it no longer heats up, looks like crumbled humus and has an earthy smell.  Help your compost stay moist in winter by placing a burlap blanket or other breathable material over it.  If your compost cools in the frigid months, don’t worry, once the temperatures warm up in spring your compost, turn your pile, add a little water and the pile will heat up again.

This post was previously published in the Longmont Ledger.

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Heading into winter is when many people forget about yard care, putting the lawnmower away for the season. We fill our time cleaning the house, scrubbing the nooks and crannies we ignored in favor of being outside. But after a summer of heat, a fall of drought and a winter that’s slow in arriving, your lawn needs a little coddling to keep it healthy until spring.

The ability of turf to survive winter depends on healthy root systems. The stresses of summer often take their toll on roots, which need to regenerate in fall during cooler weather. To help lawns recover, fertilize now.

Late season application of nitrogen is recommended for Kentucky Bluegrass, Tall Fescue or Perennial Rye. Fertilize by applying 1 pound of nitrogen per thousand square feet during the first week of November, while the grass is still green and the ground isn’t frozen (if you have sandy soils, don’t fertilize after September). With the warmth lingering late this year, lawns will get the benefit of a slow cool down of the soil, which will give fertilizer the chance to help roots regrow.

Nitrogen is the most important food to feed the turf – extra potassium or phosphorus is not as critical. At this time, nitrogen in the fertilizer should be from sources such as urea, ammonium sulfate or others that don’t need microbes in the soil to release them. Soil microbes slow their activity during cold weather, which may delay release of
nitrogen to the plants, making the late application unsuccessful.

For quick benefit to plants, make sure the soil is moist, which helps the nitrogen dissolve easily. If the ground is dry, irrigate a day before fertilizing. But if you’ve already blown out your system for the winter, apply fertilizer just after one of our rain squalls have passed through.

Then protect roots from drying out during winter by giving it a bit of water if we’re having a dry spell. Dry soils can lead to dieback of the root system, which will limit the top growth of turf during the growing season.

Typically, lawns benefit from watering once every four weeks if we are not getting much rain or snow fall. Keep tabs on how much rain or snow falls at your house – not across town or in Denver where the TV stations are located – and water your lawns when we don’t get 1 inch of water, cumulative, over four weeks.

The late fertilization means lawns will green up early in the spring but not put on a lot of top growth, saving you the effort of mowing before you’re ready to swing into summer chores. Keep in mind that the March-April application may not be needed if you fertilized in November the previous year. As long as the turf greens up and grows, delay fertilizing until May or June.

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