Bark Giveaway

Walking in the woods or an arboretum this time of year is a good time to play a game of tree identification. You say, “But trees are leafless!” No problem. Often, all you need is to look at the bark.
Paperbark birch bark
You might think a white-barked birch would be an easy identification. Not necessarily. A white-barked birch might be, instead, a European birch (Betula pendula). This one is distinguished from our native paper birch (B. papyrifera) by the dark, diamond shaped fissures on its bark. Or Himalayan birch (B. jacquemontii) or Asian white birch (B. platyphylla). Of course, these last three species aren’t likely to turn up in our woodlands.

I’m often snagged by cherry birch (B. lenta), whose bark isn’t white at all, but whose young bark resembles young cherry bark, then morphs with age into longitudinally elongated plates. The giveaway for cherry birch comes with breaking a small twig and smelling wintergreen.

Trees like red oak (Acer rubrum), sugar maple (A. saccharum), hop hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana), and ash (Fraxinus spp.) are easy to identify once you know their bark.

I can immediately identify hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) because its bark is one of my favorites, pure gray and punctuated by corky ridges.
Hackberry bark
On a clear, wintry day when the sun hangs low in the sky, the shadows create a pattern that recalls those crisp, achromatic photographs of lunar landscapes.

Another of my favorites is American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana), whose bark looks like striated muscle. And juneberry (Amelanchier spp.), pale gray with charcoal gray striations. And paperbark maple (Acer griseum), with shiny, copper-red bark.

Paperbark maple bark

Paperbark maple bark

If tree bark offers no leads about a tree, a few dead leaves on the ground or clinging to stems can help out. Beech leaves make identification especially easy because beech is among the few trees that clings to almost all its dead leaves all winter. The lower leaves of some oaks also are reluctant to drop.

Bark, leaves, and aroma aren’t the only things that scream out a tree’s name. Everyone knows the distinctive weeping form and light-colored young bark of weeping willows. Less universally known is the very distinctive form of pin oaks (Quercus palustris): lower limbs sweep downward, mid-height limbs grow out horizontally, and upper limbs point skyward.
Pin oak tree form
On most trees, stems are alternate, that is, they don’t grow directly opposite each other. So if a tree — one that grows wild in the northeast, at least — has opposite stems, I can limit the choices to just a few trees: dogwoods, maples, ashes, or catalpa.

This tree game is more than fun; it’s also useful for identifying firewood. A couple of years ago, I bought some firewood that was billed as swamp oak, which is sometimes a name for pin oak. The firewood’s bark had distinctive, long, flat-topped ridges, which a friend finally identified as belonging to American linden (basswood, Tilia americana). It’s not very good for firewood.

(For a lot more about identifying trees by their bark, in the Northeast, at least, see the book Bark by Michael Wojtech.)

Chestnuts Roasting on an . . . Well, not Exactly

Moving indoors, to the fruits of my labor. Or, rather, the nuts of my labor.

A few years ago I came up with yet another way to roast chestnuts, one that makes the pellicle, that thin, brown skin clinging to the nutmeat, easy to remove. After giving each nut a slit perpendicular to its axis, I spread the nuts in a shallow layer in a covered pan set in a hot oven or on top of the wood stove for 45 minutes. During that time the nuts steam from their own moisture. Then off comes the lid for another 15 minutes of cooking to let the nuts roast and the shells and pellicles (the skin around each nut) turn crisp.
Chestnuts roasting
Massaging each nut without breaking up the nutmeat cracks the shell and the pellicle so that both come off easily — usually. The nuts have the mealy texture of a baked potato and a wonderfully sweet flavor.

Bark Futures

I’m planning to enjoy more fruits — or, rather, nuts — of my labor in years to come. Two Korean pine (Pinus koreansis) trees should eventually get me home-grown pine nuts. As should a lacebark pine (P. bungeana).

The lacebark pine, once it gets older, will also bring me attractive bark to admire as it naturally peels away in brown, rust, green, and cream-colored patches.

Other home-grown bark beauty here includes persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), whose bark is like alligator skin (but not scary), Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia)

Bark of persimmon and sterwartia

Persimmon (left)                           Stewartia (right)

and my previously mentioned favorite, hackberry, a fast growing tree now almost 15 feet tall that I started from seed I pulled off an old tree. The hackberry’s bark is just starting to develop those attractive, corky ridges.
Young hackberry bark

Hazels, Filberts, Cobnuts; Good by any Name

Nuts are Good

Let’s talk about nuts. No, not about nutty politics, but about real nuts such as fall from trees and shrubs. (Peanuts are borne on a small, annual plant, but despite their name, are legumes, not true nuts.) Nuts are an overlooked food. For all you protein people, nuts are high in protein, and, for all you heart-healthy people, they’re high in the good kinds of fatty acids. I eat them because, unadulterated, they’re good-tasting and generally good for you.

Ripe filbert nuts

Ripe filbert nuts

Nuts are not difficult to grow, and can make attractive dual-purpose plants as both edibles and as ornamentals.

Black walnuts are especially easy. Squirrels do the planting for me; my job is to get rid of excess trees, of which there are plenty sprouting all over the place. The next job with walnuts, after gathering them up, is getting at the nutmeat. Well worth the effort, in my opinion, but that’s a story for another time.

Filbert in Variety

Filberts are easy to grow and easy to shell. Because of a disease known as eastern filbert blight, the trick in growing them here in the Northeast is selecting an appropriate variety. (“Hazelnut” is another name for filberts, as is, In Britain, “cobnut.“) Filbert blight is an indigenous disease east of the Rocky Mountains. First symptoms are elliptical black stromata along stems.

Pustules of filbert blight

Pustules of filbert blight

The disease kills individual branches, even whole plants. I first planted filberts many years ago and was told it could take 10 years for the disease to show up; disappointingly, that was true.

Susceptibility to filbert blight varies. Our native American filbert (Coryllus americana) evolved with the disease so is resistant. Unfortunately, it generally bears nuts that are very small and not very tasty. European filberts (C. avellana), the filberts of commerce, bear large, tasty nuts, but are susceptible to filbert blight. 

Decades of breeding at universities and by individual nut enthusiasts sought the holy grail: Filbert plants that bear large, tasty nuts and that fend off filbert blight. Filbert blight’s inroads into the Pacific northwest, where filberts are grown commercially spurred development of a number of blight resistant varieties at Oregon State University (OSU). I’ve tried a number of them, including Jefferson, Lewis, Clark, Santiam, Yamhill, Dorris, and Theta. Problem is that the filbert blight fungus has a nasty habit of appearing in more than one strain so that a variety resistant in one place can be susceptible elsewhere. All those OSU varieties, with the exception of Dorris and Yamhill succumbed to blight here.

Over the years, I’ve also planted other varieties. Gellatly, Halls Giant, and Tonda di Giffoni were promising, and bore large, tasty nuts for a few years before succumbing to blight. Almost ripe filbertsFive years ago, I had the opportunity to test some of the varieties from Dr. Tom Molnar’s filbert breeding program at Rutgers University; these plants are now old enough to bear. Being test plants, they have unappetizing names like CR x R11P07 and CR x RO3P26. Mmmm. I’m sure they mean something to Tom.

All of which is to say that I have a good reservoir of blight fungus floating around here as well as a number of varieties to evaluate for yield, nut quality (which, at this point, is mostly about size), and resistance to filbert blight. Drum roll . . . The winners, so far, are CR x R11P10, CR x RO3P26, CR x R06P56, Yamhill, and Graham. None of the “CR” varieties show any blight and all have good nut size. The heaviest yield is from  CR x RO3P26. 

Filbert nuts in summerYamhill always has some blight but still manages to bear nuts, small to medium-sized ones.

The last one named, Graham, is from my original planting of 20 years ago. Its suckering growth habit evokes its American filbert parentage. (European filberts hardly spread by suckers, growing instead as large bushes or medium-sized trees.) Graham always has a number of blighted branches yet always bears good crops of large, tasty nuts.

Also in the pipeline are MacDonald (from OSU), Truxton, and Geneva (also known as Gene, and from and Filberts typically bear in their third or fourth year so I won’t be waiting long before seeing if any of these varieties are keepers.

Enter: Squirrels

Filberts are delicious, and growing and cracking them is easy; the fly in the ointment is squirrels. They will strip a bush clean. Besides, or in addition to, the usual methods for thwarting squirrels — dogs, cats, guns, and traps — are other options.

Sufficiently isolated plants, if grown as single-trunked trees and trained so that no branches droop or originate lower than 6 to 8 ft. from ground level, can be protected. Either a 2 ft. cylinder or an inverted cone of sheet metal wrapped around the trunk 6 to 8 feet above ground level does the trick.

Hot pepper spray?

Harvesting the almost-ripe nuts before squirrels get to them?

I’ve found that squirrels avoid running in high grass, probably because it slows them down, and they need all the speed they can get with my dogs present. Then again, maybe they’re just hidden from me in the high grass. Still, thus far squirrels have avoided my filberts in my once-a-year mowed meadow.Filbert plants in a row

The Green Faerie

In a Smoke-Filled Café . . . 

What you are about to read might have been improved upon if I had been writing with la fée verde (the green fairy) looking over my shoulder. Or better yet, if I also was writing from a smoke-filled cafe in Paris.

The Green Faerie, Viktor Oliva

The Green Faerie, Viktor Oliva

Or even better, from a smoke filled cafe at the turn of the 19th century, hanging out with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, and Lord Byron.

There’s a certain mystique with drinking absinthe, la fée verde, a distilled spirit concocted from various herbs which might include tansy, fennel, green anise, and bee balm. The most important ingredient is, of course, Artemisia absinthe, absinthe, the plant. Absinthe is one of many plants in the genus Artemisia, commonly referred to as mugwarts or wormwoods.

Full disclosure: I generally am not fond of this genus because it’s one of my worst weeds. My artemisiac nemesis is not absinthe, though, but common wormwood (Artimesia vulgaris). This ugly, perennial weed perennially keeps poking up through the leafy mulch beneath a clump of delphiniums in one corner fo the garden.

Whence the Green Faerie?

But back to absinthe, the drink. It’s been accused of being an addictive, psychoactive drug and hallucinogen, which led to its being banned in the early 1900s almost everywhere except the United Kingdom.

Artemisias all contain potent chemicals, and the chemical of potency of absinthe is thujone. Not that absinthe has cornered the market on thujone; it’s also found in some junipers, tansy, some mints, and arborvitae, whose generic name is Thuja.

As it turns out, the concentration of thujone in absinthe is too low to invite visits from the green fairy.

The Absinthe Drinker, Picasso

The Absinthe Drinker, Picasso

That invite comes from alcohol, 45-74%, that’s responsible — duh — for absinthe’s bringing on hallucinations and other psychological changes. And its addictiveness.

Still, thujone can be toxic, which is perhaps why absinthe sold in the U.S. must contain less than 10 ppm thujone. Which has led to some rumors that American absinthe isn’t “real” absinthe. Not true because, first of all, absinthe is not a well defined alcoholic drink. And secondly, less thujone does not mean less absinthe, the plant, in the bottle. Particular absinthe plants vary in their thujone concentration. And thirdly, thujone concentration in the absinthe poured out of the bottle will vary also with length and method of storage; it decomposes over time.

Most artemisias are very bitter, so enjoying absinthe, the drink, is an acquired taste. (I’ve never tasted absinthe, nor, with my aversion to bitter flavors, do I intend to.) And even then, absinthe is not a liquid anyone would drink straight up.

The Absinthe Drinker, Degas

The Absinthe Drinker, Degas

All of the various methods of imbibing it involve sweetening it with sugar and diluting it with some iced water. Well, perhaps not all methods in this era of craft cocktails.

Absinthe, the plant, is not hard to grow. It’s a perennial that’s native to Europe but has naturalized in the U.S. and Canada. (Uh oh.) It enjoys a dry, fertile soil, especially one rich in nitrogen. Artemisias generally have relatively inconspicuous flowers but sometimes attractive, hoary leaves; absinthe’s leaves are gray-green on their upper sides and white on their undersides. Dusty Miller is the showiest of the artemisias, with powdery, white leaves.

My experience with common wormwood makes the ease of propagating absinthe somewhat frightening. Cuttings root readily and the plant self-seeds generously.

One Artemesia I Do Like

Now that I think of it, there is one artemesia that I do especially like, despite its potential weedy nature. Sweet Annie (A. annua) is a self-seeding annual whose tiny seeds sprout every spring to grow into 2 to 5 foot tall sweetly fragrant plants. Sweet AnnieThe sweet, resiny aroma is retained in air-dried plants for years. I keep a clump hanging upside down near my front door so that the aroma can waft into the air when the door is opened or someone brushes past.

When l’heure verte (the green hour, as 5 pm was called among absinthe enthusiasts (or addicts) in late 19th century France arrives, you won’t see me sitting at a table peering down into my glass of absinthe. The only artemesia that I might imbibe would be Sweet Annie, not because it tastes good. If I ever contract malaria, Sweet Annie is the ticket. It’s a traditional Chinese treatment and has in recent decades been incorporated into modern treatments also. So that’s another reason to like Sweet Annie, but not absinthe.

Giving Thanks

Share the Bounty

Thanksgiving is a holiday that really touches the gardener, this gardener, me, at least. If nothing more, it’s a harvest festival, a celebration of the bounty of the season’s efforts. And the season has been bountiful, as is every season if a variety of crops are grown.

Like most home gardeners, I grow a slew of different vegetables and fruits in my gardens. This year’s poor crops of okra, lima beans, and tomatoes was counterbalanced by especially bounteous crops of peppers, cabbages (Asian and European), and various kinds of corn (sweet corn, popcorn, polenta corn) and beans (green, cannelloni).

More than just give thanks, why not give back? One way would be to share the bounty with others who either don’t garden or can’t afford to purchase enough produce. Ample Harvest (, Angel Food Ministries (, and Feeding America ( are three organizations that can direct your vegetables and fruits to local pantries. Some gardeners take inspiration from the suggestion of Garden Writers Association to “Plant a Row for the Hungry.”

Thank You, Soil

This Thanksgiving, actually all through autumn (and every autumn), I’m thankful to the soil. Much of life is supported by the thin skin of earth that envelops the earth’s surface. (The skin of an apple is, relatively speaking, proportionally the same to the size of the fruit as the skin of soil is to the size of our planet.)Mulched apple trees

That earthy skin also plays an important role in recycling water and organic materials.  Soil stores and purifies water, and is host to 10,000-50,000 species of microorganisms in every teaspoon that break down and recycle waste leaves, tree trunks, dead animals and other organic materials.

I offer thanks to the soil by feeding soil organisms organic materials. I haul in materials that people elsewhere have too much of: bagged leaves; manure mixed with wood shavings and hay from a local horse farm; wood shavings from a sawmill. On site, I feed soil creatures kitchen trimmings, hay mowed from my meadow, old cotton, wool or leather clothing, shredded paper, and anything else derived from what is or was living. Some of the stuff gets spread on the ground as mulch. Some gets composted before being spread on the ground.Mulching chestnuts

When all is said and done, my ground each years is better, in terms of fertility, soil life, water holding and drainage, than it was the previous year. On the practical side, there’s no need for me to purchase fertilizer.

Good, crumbly soil structure

Good, crumbly soil structure


That’s not all with this thankfulness. How about the environment generally, not just the soil? Nothing to do this time of year except to carry on as usual. That includes eliminating or minimizing the use of various -icides. Fungicides to kill fungi, insecticide to kill insects, herbicides to kill weeds, acaricides to kill mites, bactericides to kill bacteria . . .  did I leave any out?

True, gardening isn’t Nature, and even good gardens get occasional pest problems. But, as I wrote above, most gardens easily yield an abundance of vegetables, fruits, or flowers, so some could be sacrificed to (shared with?) pests.

And there’s something to be said for ignoring a certain amount of damage, especially if it is only cosmetic. After all, plants tolerate the damage. The remaining parts of a leaf that has been chewed away by and insect, for example, then step up to bat with beefed up  photosynthesis.

On the rare occasions when it’s necessary to reach for some -icide to do in a pest has gotten sufficiently out of control to seriously threatens a plant, I opt for environmentally-friendly alternatives. I’ll use the pest-specific bacterial fungicide Bacillus thurengiensis (sold under such trade names as Thuricide and Dipel) to kill the various cabbage worms (they’re actually not “worms” but “caterpillars”). And insecticidal soap or horticultural oil to kill scale insects and mealybugs, and certain fungi, and pans of beer to attract and kill slugs.

Mostly, though, I let Nature take care of itself, within reason. I decide what plants to put in my gardens and what plants to weed out (weeds). Severe pest outbreaks require a decision on whether action is necessary or whether the particular crop can be sacrificed. (That’s the advantage of home gardens: financial decisions don’t rule and diversity means there’s always plenty of other vegetables or fruits to harvest.) I regularly “feed” the little guys in the soil who, in turn, feed the plants to replenish nutrients they take from the soil, and then are moved further offsite into my kitchen.

Thanksgiving harvest

Thanksgiving harvest


Not Green Enough

I’m looking up at my green roof, my evergreen roof, and it’s not green enough. Literally. I had expected that by now the roof would be solid green. It’s not.Two cats on my green roof

The green of this roof was supposed to come from the plants growing on it. Because conditions up on the roof are very harsh, the plants I chose were tough ones, hens-and-chicks (Sempervivum spp.). Hens-and-chicks look like little cabbage heads of stubby, succulent leaves. Baby plants push out from around the mother plants, grow, and make more babies, and so on, ad infinitum. Or so I hoped.

The roof only has a couple of inches of “soil” on it and covers a porch, so has no heated space or insulation beneath it. If winter temperatures plummet to 10 degrees below zero, not uncommon here, temperatures within that thin layer of soil also plummet to 10 degrees below zero. If summer temperatures hit 95° in the shade, the soil, which is shaded at one end, also hits 95° — and more in the sunny end. The roof never gets watered, except by natural rainfall.

The hens-and-chicks have established and survived and spread. But not enough. By now, I expected the roof be packed solid with hens-and-chicks, with excess plants spilling decoratively over the front edge. But too much soil still shows. Part of the green problem is that hens-and-chicks are not all that green; the leaves are more pale blue-gray.

Enter Angelina

So I’ve been taking steps to green up the roof.

The first step has been introducing a companion plant for the hens-and-chicks. The plant, which I believe is ‘Angelina’ rocky stonecrop (Sedum rupestre), has been magically appearing here and there in and around my rock walls. Well, not magically. As with other succulents, ‘Angelina’ easily grows into whole new plants wherever any piece of stem or leaf merely drops onto the soil. Over the past few years, whenever I’m so inclined, I grab a few pieces of ‘Angelina’ and toss them up on the roof. They’ve rooted and spread, parading up there as forest-green patches.Sedum Angelina on green roof

I periodically get more serious with ‘Angelina’. “More serious” means filling some cell-type seedling flats with a “soil” of equal parts moist peat and perlite, and poking inch-long pieces of leafy ‘Angelina’ stems into the mix. After a winter in the greenhouse or a sunny window, those cuttings are rooted enough to plug into holes I dibble into the soil on the roof among the hens-and-chicks. The roof is a little more than 100 square feet. Each plant could potentially fill up a square foot in a couple of seasons, so 100 cuttings of this plant would do the trick and take up only a couple of square feet of space in their holding cells.Propagating Angelina plants

Another step to making the rooftop greener is to beef up the “soil.” The soil is actually a mix of equal parts peat and calcined montmorillonite clay (a.k.a. kitty litter, unused). The mix is heavy enough not to blow away, and the peat is relatively resistant to decomposition. Some shovelfuls of this mix periodically tossed up on the roof replace what’s washed away or settled.

The mix is lean in nutrients so, come spring, I could also beef up the rooftop with some fertilizer. Not much, though, because succulents are light feeders and too much fertility would encourage weeds.

Is Green Better Than . . . ?

I don’t get it. Green roofs are so “in” these days, for their green appearance and for their environmental green-ness. Sure, green roofs insulate rooms below from heat and cold. And green roofs capture and evaporate some rainwater rather than let it run down gutter pipes and into sewers or streams. The air above green roofs stays cooler than that above conventional roofs, so heat islands aren’t created.

But are the above good enough reasons to put plants on a roof? After all, good insulation also insulates, a lot better than soil and with a lot less weight. And how much water could a roof of succulent plants — plants known for their low water usage — evaporate?

Much as I love plants, I’d rather see solar panels on roofs. My green roof is for looks (and not sunny enough for solar panels).

And A Bow To The Weeds

My green roof is a testimonial to the tenacity of plants. Despite the leanness of the soil mix and its being initially pretty much weed-free, some weeds have colonized the roof. And they survive, despite the harsh growing conditions up there.Weeds on green roof

The weeds that came in weren’t succulents, but grasses and perennials such as foxtail grass and goldenrod. Every time I look up at the roof, I am awed at how these and other plants not only got there, but how they manage to survive there year after year.

Weeding up there would seem such a travesty — and be very difficult.



 Cells Beget Plants, or Animals

   As I strode out to the garden today, the word “totipotency” was forefront in my mind. No, I wasn’t thinking of myself as “all powerful,” which is what totipotent (Latin totus=whole, potent=powerful) might seem to mean.
    Totipotency is the ability of any cell in an organism — you, me, my dog Sammy, my rose bush — to potentially give rise to any other kind of cell of that organism, or to a whole new organism, a clone of the original. Under the right conditions, you could put one of your skin cells in the right environment, and have those cells grow into new skin, toes, eyes — even a whole new you. Fortunately, nobody has yet figured out how to do that with a human.
    (What I wrote is not exactly true. Not every cell within an organism is totipotent. In organisms that reproduce sexually, egg and sperm cells — the germ cells — have only half their complement of genes, so these particular cells can’t be cloned to reproduce non-germ cells or whole organisms.)
    Back to the garden and totipotence . . . Using random plant parts to make whole new plants is nothing new to most gardeners. With stem cuttings, for example, you put a stem into a suitable environment, and it’s induced to grow roots at its base and new shoots, followed by flowers and, perhaps, fruits, above ground. With leaf cuttings, all these new parts spring from a mere leaf.
    Stems and leaves are more than just a few cells. More specialized, but still feasible, is cloning with just a few cells: so-called micropropagation or tissue culture. A few cells are removed, usually from a growing point, and then, under sterile conditions, put into a petri dish containing a medium to supply nutrients and a balance of plant growth hormones. The cells multiply without differentiation into anything special until they are transferred to another medium, this one with an altered balance of hormones, that induces cells to differentiate into leaves and roots. After a period of growth, the plantlets graduate to real soil.
    Micropropagation is a way to create many new, pest-free clones quickly and from a minimum of amount of mother plant.

Apolitical Graft

    My foray into “totipotencing” plants today required pretty much nothing more than pruning shears. I was cutting scion wood, which are stems for grafting onto growing plants. In this case, the growing plants — the rootstocks — provide roots to the clone; the completed plant, from the graft upwards, is the clone, in this case various varieties of pears.

Watersprouts on old apple tree

Watersprouts on old apple tree

    In the past, I’ve done a “Henry IVth” on pear trees whose fruits were not up to snuff, then grafted a more desirable scion on to the decapitated trees. Today’s scions are for grafting onto one-year-old pear seedlings, to make new pear trees. (Not that I need that many pear trees. The grafting will be done by participants at a couple of grafting workshops I’ll be holding this spring. Stay tuned to my website for when, where, and other details.)
    Grafts are most successful with young scions — one-year-old stems, those that grew last season. They come in various sizes, depending on their vigor; pencil-thick is about right. I cut them into foot-long lengths. Watersprouts, those vigorous, vertical branches often appearing in the upper parts of a tree, are good for scionwood, and most, anyway, should be removed.

Pear scions

Pear scions

  The odds for success are also increased if grafting takes place with dormant scions grafted on rootstocks that are either dormant or awakening. That’s why I collected scions today; they’re still dormant, but not for long, outdoors.
    I’ll keep those scions dormant with cold, in the refrigerator or my mudroom (north side of the house, tile floor over concrete).
    Drying out would spell death to the scions, as it would to any living plant or plant part. They need to be kept hydrated, but not in so moist an environment as to cause rotting. So I store them in a plastic bag, around which I wrap a moist towel, and then put the towel-wrapped bag into another plastic bag, well-sealed.

I Was Wrong About Arnold

    I was wrong. Back in December, I wrote, “My Arnold’s Promise witchhazel usually flowers in March. This year’s October flowering means no flowers this coming spring.” Well, it’s March 1st as I write this, and Arnold’s Promise is showered with strappy, yellow blossoms.

Witchhazel's winter flowers and remains of fall flowers

Witchhazel’s winter flowers and remains of fall flowers

    Evidently, not all flower buds slated to open this month opened prematurely, last October. Some did as they are supposed to do: waited. Why? Good question. Looking at the shrub, a location effect does not seem to come into play. Late winter blossoms seem randomly distributed rather than concentrated on older, younger, lower, higher, southern, or northern stems.
    With no explanation coming to mind (yet!), I’ll just relax and enjoy the unexpected show.

I Find Common Ground, and More, in Maine

 My Favorite Country Faire

   Two dogs, one cat, six ducks, and one chicken are trusted to the care of friends; sourdough starter is re-fed and chilled; plants are on their own. It’s hard to leave the farmden. But this trip — to Maine — is well worth it.
    Walking through the entrance gate to the Common Ground Fair in Unity, Maine, my senses are overloaded with color and fragrance. Along either side of the entrance path are boxes piled high with bright orange carrots, spilling over with the blue green leaves of kale, or packed full with yellow or red beets. Also flowers, herbs, and cheeses. Pervasive is the resiny fragrance of sweet Annie (Artemesia annua), which for some reason seems to be perennially the signature herb of the fair. Buckets are filled with stems for sale; knapsacks sprout bunches of purchased sweet Annie from their zippered pockets; and girls and women sport woven sweet Annie headdresses. From the shade of tents on either side of the walkway, Maine’s myriad organic farmers are hawking their wares.Crafts at Common Ground Fair
    Sweet Annie isn’t the only fragrant herb at the fair. In the tent devoted to some of Maine’s political groups, buds of marijuana — medical marijuana — are available for olfactory sampling.
    Central to the Common Ground Fair, like all country fairs, are agriculture and rural skills. A team of oxen strain under the weight of logs they are pulling. Border collies bead down on sheep, demonstrating their herding skills and the training skills of their owners. A bearded, young man swings an adze as the log on which he is standing takes on a square cross-section. Another bearded man helps a young boy pull a bow back and forth until smoke curls up from the round, maple peg rubbing the round notch in a maple board: fire-making without matches.
 Common Ground Fair, fire making   In other tents, these with closed, darkened flaps, someone standing near a flap holds the attention of a seated crowd in the darkened interior. No, not a cult gathering. Throughout each of the three fair days, workshops are offered in such diverse topics as “Farm-Raised Kids on an Organic Farm in Maine,” “Backyard Grain Growing,” “Advanced Seed Saving,” “Growing Grass-fed Vegetables,” and “Weedless Gardening.”  (The last was one of the three workshops I held at the fair.)
Common Ground Fair, barn dance

Old-Fashioned Fun

    Common Ground Fair is “retro,” an improvement on country and county fairs, in doing less. No amplified voices of barkers try to woo you in to win a stuffed gorilla. In fact, a three-year-old boy trying to pound an oversize sledge hammer onto a pad as a test of strength, with a lot of help from his mom, was the only strength or skill test I saw — and no prizes offered.
    No rides either. No fun? Given the happy whoops of the slew of children running up a grassy slope with flattened cardboard boxes, then jumping on them with a running start to slide down, I’s say they were having fun.Common Ground Fair, grass slide
    Just about everything at the fair is made or grown in Maine. (Used to be that everything had to be grown in Maine, which put coffee drinkers on edge. Maine-roasted coffee is now available at the fair.)
    Twilight is wondrous at the fair, mostly because you can see the twilight. No strings of electric lights bring the fair to new life at the end of the day. Most people leave. The only light, besides the setting sun, is the soft, yellow glow of lanterns or campfires. The fragrance of the campfires and the sounds of campers’ home-grown music around the campfires are the parting senses as I leave the fair.     

My Favorite Garden Designer

    Beatrix Farrand is a name that most people do not recognize, although she was a woman who created some of the most beautiful landscapes and gardens in the world. And she did so at a time — in the early 20th century — when such professions were not open to women. Much of her landscape work was in Maine, on Mt. Desert Island, as was her home, Reef Point.
    Reef Point was Beatrix’s family estate; under her care, it evolved into a horticultural heaven, with garden areas woven together by grassy paths. Spruce trees created microclimates that allowed azaleas and other plants not usually adapted to cold of Maine winters and the buffeting by ocean winds to survive and thrive. The gardens, the experimental plantings, and their descriptions in Farrand’s Reef Point Bulletins were all part of her vision of Reef Point as an educational enterprise.
 Garland Farm   Alas, Reef Point Gardens did not fulfill the vision: wildfire and lack of funding forced Ms. Farrand to down-size. She dismantled Reef Point and moved to an addition she had built attached the home of Lewis and Amy Garland, the superintendent and chief horticulturalist of her Reef Point Estate.
    Garland Farm — my last stop on my visit to Maine — was Beatrix Farrand’s final design, incorporating many architectural elements and plants salvaged from Reef Point. In contrast to Ms. Farrand’s other projects, which included designs for Princeton University, Rockefellers’ Seal Harbor estate, The Mount (home of Edith Wharton, Beatrix’s aunt), Dumbarton Oaks (my favorite of all gardens), and the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, Garland Farm is a small garden.
    Looking out the French doors of Ms. Farrand’s study at Garland Farm onto the small parterre garden, your eyes are carried along a path to a Buddhist statue. Along that path are beds home to lavender, heathers, and other plants with year ‘round effect. The whole area is defined by a low balustrade, setting it off from the view of the meadow and grove of Norway spruce trees in the distance. This garden incorporates the same design principles — axis, year ‘round effect, structure, and integration of views — on an intimate scale, that were so successful in Beatrix Farrand’s larger projects.


Perennial Wheat to Save Our Soil, But What About Compost?

    We — that is, almost all of humanity — get all our sustenance from the thin skin that covers out planet, the soil. In appreciation of this, the United Nations has declared 2015 “The Year of Soil.” “Soil is more important than oil,” stated Wes Jackson, founder of the Land Institute, in his keynote at this year’s recent NOFA-NY  conference. Like oil, soil is a nonrenewable, or only slowly renewable, resource. Centuries go by before rainfall, freezing, thawing, and microbes and plants eat away at rocks to make new soil; on average, it takes a thousand years for the creation of a mere half-inch of new soil.
    The problem is that, as with oil, we humans are using up soil faster than new soil is being created — 10 to 40 times faster! Also, as with oil, that soil, as it is used, releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Tillage exposes carbon stored in the ground to air, burning” it up, and annual crops, which are represented by sweeping fields of corn, soybeans, wheat, and other staples of civilization, put little of the carbon that they take in from air below ground. Agriculture is the second highest generator of greenhouse gases.
    Whew, what to do? Dr. Jackson’s tack, for the past half century, has been to focus on shifting our staples from annual to perennial crops. Wheat, for instance. Kanza, a hybrid, perennial wheat under development at the Land Institute, would sequester carbon by not requiring annual tillage and by packing carbon compounds into its long-lived root system. Perennial crops also decrease opportunities for soil erosion (another source of soil loss), grow with less added fertilizer and water,  and have the potential to increase biodiversity for a healthier ecosystem.

Organic Materials: Wasted Fertilizer

    What about vegetables, how are they treating our resources? Up to the podium stepped Tim Crews, director of research at the Land Institute, to give the roomful of organic and aspiring organic vegetable farmers and gardeners bad news: Our soil care is not sustainable. All that manure hauled onto our fields or piled high into compost piles is bedded with hay or comes from animals that have been fed grain. The grain or hay was grown in fields that were fertilized, most of it with commercial fertilizer which is mostly made from atmospheric nitrogen via the Haber-Bosch process which requires — you guessed it — fossil fuel for energy.Organic materials feed compost pile.
    Still, the fact that organic farming and gardening wastes less energy than conventional farming and gardening should assuage some of the guilt that resonated through the room. The soil of a good organic farmer or gardener will, in general, be higher in organic matter (5.4% vs. 3.5%) and, hence, carbon. Said plot will require less water, less pesticide, and less manufactured nitrogen for fertilizer.

Compost, Garden — and Small Farm — “Gold”

    Compost, and compost alone, is how I maintain fertility in my vegetable beds. I do haul in some horse manure for that compost, and, as Dr. Crews pointed out, somewhere way back in that manure’s history, fossil fuel needed to be burned.
    But civilization, and especially industrialized civilizations, generate many waste products, of which horse manure is one. Picture also all the food waste from restaurants and supermarkets, autumn leaves and grass clippings that are considered “garbage,” even sewage effluent. All these organic materials contain carbon, some of which could be sequestered in the ground, to the benefit of agriculture and the environment, and some of which feed soil organisms and, in turn, plants.
 Turning compost pile.   Better to recycle as much of those organic materials as possible into agriculture than let them go to waste or cause pollution. The bottlenecks here are cultural and political rather than agricultural.

Grow Your Own Fertilizer

    Another way, as I suggested at the conference, to make vegetable farming more sustainable would be to grow your own carbon and fertilizer. A perennial grain or hay field could be harvested for the grain or hay for the animals or, even more efficiently, just for hay to use either as mulch or for composting. Running hay or grain through animals burns up carbon to grow and fuel the animal to the tune of, on average, about 6 times more needed in terms of calories. That is, for every 6 calories we grow and feed to a cow, we get only one calorie back when we eat the cow.
    Left to its own devices, any field will naturally build fertility. Bacteria, free-living bacteria and symbiotic with the roots of legumes, harvest atmospheric nitrogen and put it in the ground, and the combined action of myriad soil organisms slowly chew away at a soil’s rocky matrix to release other nutrients for plant use. Plants grow, their roots oozing substances that further stimulate microbial activity and soil fertility.

Nodules from nitrogen-fixing bacteria on soybean roots.

Nodules from nitrogen-fixing bacteria on soybean roots.

    The key word in the previous paragraph is “slowly.” In order to be able to harvest fertilizer in the form of hay from a field year after year, sufficient time must be allowed between harvests for fertility to be garnered from the air and rocks. For that you need either more land or less harvest. The big picture, then, is to have more land, to make better choices in how the land is used, to utilize organic practices, and have fewer people.
    With the problems of soil improvement, global warming, sustainability, and agricultural production solved, I’m going to sow onion seeds. Planted in flats in potting soil at 7 seeds per inch, I should have plenty of pencil-thick seedlings ready to poke into holes in compost enriched beds in early May.