(locust, gates, corn planting)

May 10th, an exquisite day with a slight breeze, temperatures in the 70s, and a limpid blue sky matching the blue on the backs of the resident pair of male bluebirds flitting about. What a day to be in the garden. So how come I’m not there? Because I’m building garden gates.
Having recently re-built the arbored gateways leading into and out of one of my vegetable gardens, building of gates themselves was the next order of business. Or, rather, has been for the past month or so. The original arbors and gates were cedar, everyone’s go-to wood for rustic garden structures. I hand cut and hand carried all the cedar out of the woods for those original arbors and gates, and fashioned them into what I thought were quite attractive structures – until they rotted.
The new arbors and gates are of black locust, a dense wood that vies with commercial pressure-treated wood for longevity. I grew most of the posts myself, in my miniature woodlot that’s about 50 feet long by about 15 feet wide. There, locust saplings swell up to the needed 4 to 6 inch diameter posts in 12 years. New sprouts develop at the base of cut stumps and from root suckers so the mini-woodlot offers an ongoing supply of locust posts. (This year’s construction necessitated supplementing my woodlot’s production with wood from my friend Bill, who has a bona fide forest of black locust trees in Gardiner and sells locust posts.)
So, yes, it would have been a nice day to have been in the garden. But it was also a nice day to be building garden gates. As with so many things in gardening, building the gates provided a satisfying commingling of art and function. One gate down, 3 to go.


Dead or living, black locust is among my favorite trees. One other endearing feature of dead locust is its enormous heat output when burned. There are few other woods that provide longer and more warmth in the woodstove than black locust.
The living tree has a deeply furrowed bark and craggy form that reminds me of the trees along the yellow brick road that grabbed Dorothy on her way to Oz. In a couple of weeks, black locust branches will be dripping with chains of pale, blue flowers looking something like those of wisteria but more subdued. The flowers emanate a sweet fragrance that can be enjoyed from even a couple of hundred feet distance.
Another endearing quality of black locust is that the living tree improves the soil. It’s a legume, just like peas and beans, and like other legumes harbors a symbiotic bacterium in its roots that takes nitrogen from the air and puts it into a form on which plants can feed.
Black locust has the distinction of being classified as a “native invasive” plant, a tricky (goofy?) classification that’s not immediately clear. The tree is truly native to a small area in southeastern U.S. from which it has naturally spread.
As I wrote above, “new sprouts develop at the base of cut stumps and from root suckers,” Black locust also sometimes makes new plants from fallen seeds. I welcome this invader.
I did take a break from gate-building to get into the garden. I had to because today is the day for my first planting of corn. We still have a week or two of possible frost, which shouldn’t hurt the planting. Corn is a grass, with its growing point sheltered beneath the ground, ready to push up new leaves even if they suffer cold injury above ground. The only requisite for planting is sufficiently warm soil, 55° and above, to promote germination rather than rotting.


This year’s plantings, like those of past years, is Golden Bantam sweet corn in one vegetable garden and Pink Pearl and Dutch Butter popcorn in the other. I isolate these plantings to prevent cross-pollination from making the sweet corn less sweet or the popcorn less poppable.
Into each 3 foot wide bed goes two rows of hills (“hills” as in “stations,” not mounds), with 18 inches between hills in the row. I drop 8 seeds into each hole, water, and, with my foot, push the soil back into the hole and firm it with my heel. Hills provide closeness for corn mating and withstand winds better than wider spaced individual plants. Once up and growing strongly, the seedlings get thinned to the sturdiest 4 plants per hill.

(seedlings on the move, flower sdlg, what is gardening, naturalized bulbs

This time of year, more than ever, each of my plants gets its carefully allotted space. That’s because seedlings that will eventually be planted out in the garden have begun to overflow the greenhouse, which must also house grown-up lettuce, kale, celery, and other plants for eating right now. To economize best on space, I sow seeds in furrows in 4 by 6 inch seedling flats and prick out tiny seedlings a week or so after they sprout into individual cells in cell packs filled with potting soil. As temperatures warm and seedlings grow, seedlings in cell packs move outside and get acclimated to brighter sunshine, wind, and cooler

Who gets moved, and when, depends on the plant and the weather. Broccoli, kale, cabbage, and collard seedlings are cold-hardy and almost big enough to transplant. So they’ve been sitting on the table outside the greenhouse since earlier this month. The same goes for celery, artichoke, lettuce, and onion seedlings.


Inside the greenhouse, pepper seedlings are growing in cells and tomato seedlings are almost ready to lift out of their furrows in seedling flats for re-planting in individual cells. The tomato seedlings sprout and grow fast, so even though they were sown later, they’ll soon outstrip the peppers in growth.
A wrench is thrown into this orderly march of plants within and then outside the greenhouse whenever temperatures drop near or below freezing. Then everything gets hustled back into the greenhouse, which becomes overcrowded with cell packs lining up in paths, benches, and any unplanted space in beds.
Odds are that temperatures will plummet, and more than once, before warm weather settles in for good. The average date for the last killing frost around here is the middle of May.
For the last few years, that date has been pushed way back into early April – almost. “Almost” because every year for the past few years it’s been warm, warm, warm through April and then bam!, one or two nights in early May get downright frigid, as if to remind me about that average date of the last killing frost. Those evenings I run around throwing blankets over seedlings already planted in the garden and moving seedlings back into the greenhouse. And then it gets warm again, and stays that way.


I’m realizing earlier this year than most years that I’ve started too many flower transplants. Usually that realization comes as I’m frantically looking around the yard trying to find a home for the plants in a tray of seedlings I’m carrying around.
The genesis of this problem is not hard to fathom. Pictures of colorful flowers, oozing forth from seed catalogs that arrive against the achromatic backdrop of late winter, make purchasing seeds irresistible. Each packet has so many seeds; why not plant them all? And then prick all the seedlings that sprout, or a good portion of them, into individual cells filled with potting soil? And then . . . and then, where to plant them?
It’s too early for that final dilemma. All I know is that I now have 40 carnation plants and almost that many each of Lemon Gem marigolds and three different colors of zinnia waiting to sprout. Oh yeh, also some heliotrope, nicotiana, and delphiniums. And I am going to throw some alyssum seed right out in the garden. And I have some butterfly weed and hollyhock plants from last year’s excess that never got planted. And . . .
Sometimes I wonder just what “gardening” is. Sowing seeds is definitely gardening, as is transplanting seedlings, making compost, weeding, spreading compost, and pruning. But how about replacing the wood panels of my garden cart, something I should do now and will have to do soon? Or sharpening my grafting knife, also to be done soon, very soon? Or re-building my garden fence, something I am now in the throes of? Or sharpening and trying to start my chainsaw for cutting posts that will hold up that garden fence? It’s a busy time of year.


Last week I wrote about looking for the small bulbs I had planted to naturalize in my lawn about 5 years ago. I feared they had petered out. Not so! They all appeared this week (except for the dwarf irises and crocuses marking my old dog’s grave). Cornelian cherry also finally bloomed, for some reason almost a month later than usual.

Winter cold is all too evident, right now. Or maybe it’s just that spring is later than usual. Here it is, the first week in April, and cornelian cherries (Cornus mas) have yet to bloom. Yet one reason I grow this tree is because its blossoms are among the first to awaken in spring. The stems are typically drenched in a profusion of small, yellow flowers in early spring, just after the middle of March, and blossoming goes on and on for weeks.

Everyone else is blossoming on time. Witchhazel has been in bloom for a few weeks, hellebores have opened, and buds seem ready and on time on forsythia, lilacs, and clove currants.

Cornelian cherry blossoms might have been killed by winter cold, although they’ve survived colder winters in the past. Teasing open one of the fat flower buds reveals the makings of yellow flowers, so perhaps they are just late this year.

I hope the flowers are merely still resting because, if so, they will be followed by fruits that look and taste like tart cherries. Like the flowers, they’re also borne in profusion, and decoratively hang from the branches for a long time unless harvested. Unlike tart cherries, cornelian cherries fruit very reliably with little bother from any pests.

Other evidence of this past winter’s cold – unrelated to the lateness, or not, of spring – is bamboo. Today was overcast and rainy, and driving back from having my truck inspected, I couldn’t help but note patches of winterkilled bamboo in various yards. The clumps of upright stalks draped with now-tawny leaves, very attractive as a muted prelude to the exuberance of spring blossoms, really jump out in the landscape once you start looking.

Soon bamboo will shed its dead leaves and become unattractive, a brief phase that ends as soon as new shoots poke through the ground. They grow very quickly – I’ve measured 6 inches a day of growth – and are quickly clothed in fresh, green leaves.


Particularly welcome and, I think, on time are some blossoms that are not even colorful. Those blossoms are the catkins on my filbert bushes. They are brown but drape decoratively down from the branches like the tails of cats (actually kittens, the origin of the word from the old Dutch word katteken).

Catkins are spikes of flowers, all male in the case of filberts. The female flowers are hardly noticeable until they start developing into clusters of nuts.

My filberts are European hybrids, the nuts of which are large and tasty. Years ago I grew some native filberts (Corylus americana), which bear nuts that are really too small and not tasty enough to be worth eating. The reason I planted them was because they are resistant to filbert blight disease, a disease indigenous in eastern U.S.. European filberts (C. avellana) are grown commercially in the U.S. in the Pacific northwest, where the disease was absent.

Note the phrase “was absent.” Filbert blight started showing up in those parts in the 1980s so breeders there started looking for and developing resistant varieties of European filberts. Actually, some eastern filbert enthusiasts had bred some fairly resistant varieties, such as Graham Hybrid, Gellatly, and Hall’s Giant, all of which I planted almost 15 years ago. They bore well but got some blight. The breeders in Oregon came up with some new varieties that are immune to the blight.

Long story short: I’ve been enjoying large, tasty filbert nuts in autumn and the-catkin draped branches early each spring for a number of years. The varieties I now have are Lewis, Clark, Yamhill, Jefferson, and Santiam. That’s a lot of nuts!

More nuts. Hickories are delicious (a close relative of pecans) but a hard nut to crack and, once cracked, yield little nutmeat. I recently read an article about improved varieties of this native tree, varieties whose nutmeat crack out in halves. I just ordered trees of the varieties Selbher and Henning.