[mandevilla, cottony cushion scale]

Mandevilla Crimson, the vine about which I wrote and raved a couple of months ago, has become a horticultural Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. Can this plant really be the same one that was compact and drenched, nonstop, in crimson, flowering funnels such a short while ago?

Winter light – that is, the lack of light — has made all the difference. Neither a flower nor the inklings of a flower bud are to be seen anywhere on the plant. And from the once compact mass of foliage has sprung 3 and 4 foot long shoots that are reaching out and grabbing onto a nearby rosemary plant, a lamp, anything around which they can twine. Even the leaves have undergone a transformation, although not nearly as dramatic. They’re merely smaller.

Strengthening sun should, hopefully, bring my mandevilla back to its Dr. Jeckyll persona. But what to do about all those willowy shoots? I’d like to cut them back, but according to “manufacturers” directions: “These shoots in the spring and summer will provide the flower buds for the next season flowers so do not remove or cut back hard in the spring.” Hmmmm. The manufacturer also states, in apparent contradisciton, that the vine flowers “on every third leaf pair, measured from the base or from the previous flower.” So new growth can give rise to new flowers.

My plan is to let those long shoots enjoy themselves and keep growing and building up the plant’s energy. Then, when the sun is brighter, perhaps the first day of spring, I’ll lop them back and hope for flowers from “every third leaf pair.”

I’m not soured on mandevilla crimson, in spite of its dual personality. As compared with past mandevillas, this one’s leaves kept greener in winter and the plant, during the growing season, is more florific and compact.


Now that I’m looking more closely at my mandevilla, I do see another of its Mr. Hyde side: cottony cushion scale. Sure, it sounds sort of homey and looks soft and white. But it’s bad news.

Lurking within those soft, cottony exteriors are insects, ones who have inserted their proboscises into the stems, typically at the junctures where leaves meet stems. Through those proboscises, scale insects are sucking plant sap, the lifeblood of plants. Plants are weakened sometimes to the point of death. To make matters worse, the insects secrete a sticky honeydew which drips all over the place and then, to make matters even worse, becomes colonized by a fungus that makes the honeydew turn sooty black. To make matters worse still, that sooty covering over the leaves cuts down light and, hence, photosynthesis, which is how plants make their food. And as a final badness, that scale can spread to other plants.

Now I’m tempted to toss mandevilla Crimson into my compost pile. I won’t, though. I’ll start organically, attacking the scale mano-a-mano, rubbing it off by hand. Then, armed with a cotton swab dipped in alcohol, I’ll snuff out more of them. Finally, I may take the plant outside on some warmish day and spray it either with “light horticultural oil” or “insecticidal soap,” neither of which presents an environmental or health hazard. Most important is to keep up with these treatments because young crawlers and eggs continue to develop and lack that obvious, cottony baggage.

For starters, I am going to go ahead and lop back all those willowy stems. That will make the buggers easier to find and present less stem – and, hence, less buggers – to deal with in the first place.


Mandevilla crimson is not the first of my plants to ever get cottony cushion scale. I’ve had it on jasmine plants and the related armored scales, which look like brown pimples, have attacked my staghorn fern and citrus plants.

Midwinter is when scale insects start to gain steam, and then the race begins, the insects trying to multiply as I try to keep the plants healthy and minimize that sticky goo all over the place. Once the weather warms enough to put the plants outdoors, these insects pretty much disappear. Perhaps they don’t like the climate outdoors; perhaps plant sap isn’t as tasty to them come spring; perhaps natural predators go to work. Perhaps it’s a bit of all these things. What I do know is that the scale insects are no longer a problem – until next year at this time.

[indoor shiitake,snow on tunnels, endive in tunnels

The 3-foot-long logs resting against the wall near my front door are not for firewood; they’re for eating. Not the logs themselves, of course, but what’s growing inside of them. As I write and as you read, thread-like fungal mycelia are spreading within, digesting wood and growing bigger and stronger. Sometime next fall, delicious shiitake mushrooms should start popping out of the bark.

Any old rotting log will not produce delicious, or even edible, mushrooms. A couple of weeks ago, I inoculated these logs with spawn of selected strains of shiitake mushrooms. The spawn originally came from www.fieldforest.net, via my friend Bill Munzer, who had some spawn left over from a shiitake growing workshop he recently held. The spawn arrives as inoculated plugs which get hammered into holes drilled into the logs. A coating of wax seals in moisture.

The logs would, in fact, make excellent firewood. Bill uses oak but I only had access to Norway maple, an invasive tree that anyway is better dead than alive. The oaks should pump out mushrooms for a longer period of time, as long as 5 years, but first mushrooms might show up sooner on the maple.

Not much fungal growth occurs during cold weather. On the theory that more growth sooner leads to mushrooms sooner, I’m keeping one of my logs in my cool, damp basement. An occasional dowsing with water will make sure the log stays plump with moisture.

Come spring, Bill will be hosting another shiitake growing workshop and I’m going to inoculate a few more logs. I’ll report back on the progress of production from outdoor, fall inoculated logs vs. outdoor, spring inoculated logs vs. basement, fall inoculated logs. Most important is my remembering not to accidentally saw up the logs near my front door for firewood.


Those 3-foot-long logs by the door are now nearly buried in snow, as is the rest of the garden. This recent snow has brought my outdoor salad pickings to a screeching halt.

Not that the endive, lettuce, radicchio, radishes, parsley, and arugula protected beneath tunnels of clear plastic are necessarily dead. It’s just that I can’t get to them. The snow became heavy and later turned to a freezing mist that effectively sealed the edges of the plastic tunnels right to the ground. The weight of snow has bowed down the plastic along the rows between the metal wire supports, making it look like the garden is being colonized by giant, white caterpillars.

It’s probably nice and cozy in those tunnels, though, and I am confident that everything is fresh and ready for picking despite December 13th’s morning reading of 7 degrees Fahrenheit.

As soon as the snow thaws and some of it begins to melt away, I’ll peek beneath the plastic and, if everything inside is cozy, as expected, pull away more snow to make the salad pickings more accessible before truly bone-chilling weather establishes itself for the season.


After writing the above, I became more curious about what was happening beneath the plastic so I bundled up and went outside for a look. After breaking chunks off large chunks of snow and tossing them elsewhere in the garden, I finally was able to peel up the plastic and assess the situation.

And since it was nearing supper time, I thought I’d see what kind of salad I could harvest for dinner rather than just taking a peek. Frisée endive was, as expected, turning a bit mushy. Note to myself: Don’t grow Frisée again; it doesn’t stand up well to cold and it’s hard to find dirt and slugs among the frizzy leaves. Escarole (Broad Leaved Batavian endive), on the other hand, looked a little weather-beaten but otherwise fine. The only lettuce still out in the garden is New Red, which stood as proud and as fresh as it would have any day in spring or early fall. Arugula likewise seemed not to acknowledge that temperatures had been and were quite cold.

The salad, supplemented by celery from the greenhouse and whisper thin slices cut from turnips in cold storage in my mud-room, was freshly delicious.

Late news flash: The thermometer on morning of December 18th reads 3 degrees! Outdoor salad pickings? Hmmmm. Perhaps no more.

[poinsettia, winterize trees, dead gardenia]

Time for the next step in hunkering down for winter – not by caulking around windows, not by propping snow shovels next to the front door, not by waxing up the skiis. What winter will need is flowers. Or, at least, I need flowers to make winter more pleasant.

Poinsettias and jasmines are the flowers du jour. Not that either is blooming yet. As I said, it’s time for the “next step” in preparing for winter. Both these plants would naturally bloom sometime in spring but I need them blooming in the depths of winter.

I began planning for both plants’ winter bloom back in September’s balmy days. Not much was required. All the plants needed were nights of uninterrupted darkness and cool temperatures. And, for the jasmine, also being kept on the verge of thirst.

With more than enough neglect behind them, these plants should be ready to bloom. The poinsettia came up from the cool basement window where it resided since October, and the jasmine came in from the cool greenhouse, where it resided since early November. Both plants are now sitting in warm rooms basking in the sun of south-facing windows, and will hopefully blossom within a few weeks.

I could have – should have – brought the plants to those warm, sunny windows a few weeks ago. Then, they might have been in bloom for the holidays. November sped by too quickly.


Winter preparations are also going on outdoors. I’m winterizing – not my car, but my trees. First comes a 2 to 3 inch layer of wood chips beneath the plants. Rather than the conventional, tight landscape ring around the base of the tree, which does little more than keep mowers at bay, my young trees get mulched out at least as far as the spread of their branches. Older trees’ roots fend for themselves in mowed ground without mulch.

Next comes protection from rodents. Mice revel in that soft layer of mulch around trees so I keep it back a few inches from trunks. Then, mice may have lodging but at least no ready food. To further keep them and rabbits at bay, each young tree gets a 2-foot tall cylinder of quarter- or half-inch mesh hardware cloth at its base.

The hardware cloth cylinder is thoroughly effective until a foot or two of snow accumulates, at which time the rabbits perch on top of the snow and casually munch on small trunks and branches. To thwart such bad behavior (from my perspective), above the cylinders I swaddle trunks and main branches with plastic spirals (sold for protecting trunks).

And then there’s winter cold. Actually, cold and warmth, which together is what drive trees crazy. Imagine a bright, cold, winter day: The sun shines on dark tree bark, warms it, then, abandoning the tree, drops below the horizon. Temperature of that warmed bark immediately plummets, to the tree’s dismay. To prevent see-sawing temperatures, I either paint trunks white with latex paint diluted half with water, or wrap trunks with white Dewitt Tee-Wrap, which also protects trunks from borers.


Back indoors, one plant that won’t be brightening winter with its blossoms will be my gardenia. The foliage has collapsed, dried and shriveled. Yellowing of a few leaves a few weeks ago made me suspect that the plant was hungry for some nitrogen. Perhaps a more acidic soil was needed, or iron. Not. Not. Not.

I finally gave up the ghost on the plant, tipped it out of its pot, and performed an autopsy. The roots looked surprisingly healthy. Not so, the stems. Slices into it at various points revealed grayish brown flesh indicating the plant was thoroughly dead at least down to its roots.

Despite the healthy appearance of the roots, I suspect that the problem was too much water. (Or too much fertilizer?) Especially in cool weather, gardenias get sick and often die from excessive water.

Gardenias are amongst the most challenging of houseplants to grow. Yet I remember a beautiful, large gardenia plant basking in a sunny window in the house of my friend Mike’s mother, who otherwise had no particular interest or skill with plants. I’m not giving up. I’m getting a new plant.