Appreciated but not Touched

   “Flower in the crannied wall, I pluck you out of the crannies, I hold you here, root and all, in my hand, Little flower . . . “ Whoa! Hold on there Lord Tennyson! Relax, little flower. I’m not doing any plucking.
    I had hardly a hand in some of my best plantings, and that little flower is one of them.
    There’s a small, moss-covered ledge at the base of the brick wall next to my front door, an east-facing spot that enjoys some morning sun in summer but shade from the nearby north wall the rest of the year. In short, it’s a perfect place for a summer vacation for my orchids, bonsai, and cyclamen.

Cyclamen flower in a crannied wall

Cyclamen flower in a crannied wall

    The cyclamen is Cyclamen hederifolium, sometimes commonly called Persian violet (though a violet it is not; hence the need for botanical names). Although the flowers and leaves resemble those of the better known florist’s cyclamen (C. persicum), the two cyclamen species part company in some ways. Both the flowers and the leaves of Persian violet are much smaller than those of florist’s cyclamen, and the leaves of this diminutive species have decorative patterning. They resemble those of English ivy; hence the specific epithet “hederifolium.” Hedera is the botanical genus of English ivy. Flowers hover a few inches above the leaves on thin stalks, much like small, pink butterflies.
    Best of all, Persian violet is cold-hardy where winter lows plummet as low as minus 20° F. Florist’s cyclamen must be grown as a houseplant.
    Decades ago, I purchased seeds of Persian violet, and managed to raise a small stable of plants. They are ideal for naturalizing in partially shaded areas. While naturalizing the cyclamens seemed like a good idea, the dainty cyclamens would be gobbled up by the exuberant growth coaxed in the rich soil here. So my carefully nurtured cyclamens remained in their pots, wintering in a very cold spot in my basement and summering on that ledge near my front door.
    Lo and behold, this year I’ve noticed two little plants that have seeded themselves in the bit of soil where the flagstone terrace butts up again the ledge. The effect is subtle, to say the least, but the flowers are all the more charming for their shyness. I can appreciate the second half of Lord Tennyson’s poem — “Little flower—but if I could understand, What you are, root and all, and all in all, I should know what God and man is” — but feel no need to, an aversion, in fact, to plucking the flower from its crannied wall.

Slow Cyclamen

    Years ago, I learned three things about growing cyclamen from seed. Fresh seed is best. Keep the growing medium consistently cool and moist. Be patient; germination could take many weeks, and keep plants growing well for at least two years to allow the tuber to develop.
    After that, plants can begin their spring dormancy, flowering and sprouting new leaves in late summer, the latter lasting well into winter, depending on temperatures.

Slow Ramps

    Ramps (Allium tricoccum) are all the rage; here also, and my plan is to expand my ramp planting of two potted plants into a passel of ramps by growing them from seed. My experience in growing cyclamen from seed might come in handy here.
    Although both plants enjoy similar growing condition, at least as far as the need for part shade in spring, the life cycle of ramps is different from cyclamens. Ramps sprout leaves in spring, send up a flower stalk, and then the leaves fade away as the plant goes dormant. The flowers talk remains, developing a head full of seeds — which I collected last week.
 Ramp seedlings    I planted the small seeds in potting soil in a flower pot. The journey begins. Those seeds could take anywhere from 6 to 18 months to sprout. When just ripe, ramp seeds have an under-developed embryo, a situation that inhibits germination. Keeping the seed warm and moist permits development of the embryo and, eventually, root growth.
    Once root dormancy has been broken, there’s still shoot dormancy to contend with. Shoots won’t grow until the seeds, with their root sprouts, have experienced a period of cool, moist conditions — that is, they recognize that winter is over and it’s safe to send a green shoot aboveground.
    If root dormancy isn’t completed before winter sets in, it has to finish the following year, with shoot dormancy needing fulfilling after that: 18 months after sowing. Fulfilling root dormancy before winter allows shoot growth the following spring: 6 months after sowing.  I’m making sure of root dormancy being fulfilled before cold weather sets in by keeping the pot of seeds moist and in the greenhouse. Temperatures are cool in the greenhouse in winter, so I’m expecting — hoping — for sprouts to appear by late winter.
    Growing ramps and cyclamen from seed is similar in that a prime ingredient for success is patience. In the case of ramps, if everything goes right, I could be harvesting my first home grown ramps in 5 to 7 years.



Drip irrigation has many benefits: saves water, healthier plants, easily automated, less weeds. I’ll be holding a DRIP IRRIGATION WORKSHOP on June 20, 2015 in Bloomington, NY. Learn why drip is the better way to water and the components and designing of a drip system. And then, hands-on, we’ll design an install a system in an existing vegetable and flower garden. For registration and information, go to

Lily Turds

   The turds on my crown imperial plants were unwelcome, but no surprise. I’d been forewarned that the red lily beetle (Lilioceris lilii) was in the area. Finally, it found my garden and my crown imperials.
    For a relatively mobile insect, the beetle was surprisingly slow in its arrival. This native of Europe made its North American debut in Montreal in 1945 and its entrance stateside, in 1992, in Massachusetts. Since then, it has spread. Gardeners are on alert for the beetle as far away as the Pacific northwest since its sighting near Seattle in 2012.

Red lily beetle on crown imperial.

Red lily beetle on crown imperial.

   Those turds I saw actually are turds, the beetle larvae’s excrement, piled on their backs as they feed. Perhaps the greenish brown slime that hides the red larvae will not make the larvae unappetizing to my ducks or chicken. Those larvae are hatchlings from eggs adult beetles laid a few weeks ago. After a few weeks of feeding, the larvae will pupate. New emerging adults will feed until making their way to their winter homes in fall. The worst culprits, in terms of plant damage, are the larvae.
    There are many ways to skin a cat, and many ways to deal with red lily beetles, none of which need involve highly toxic pesticides. Easiest, of course, would be to avoid growing susceptible plants. Mostly, the beetles fare are lilies (Lilium spp., which does not include daylilies) and Fritillaria species, which includes crown imperials. Susceptibility varies among lily species, with Asiatic hybrids the most vulnerable and some Oriental hybrids more resistant. Lilium henryi ‘Madame Butterfly’, Lilium speciosum ‘Uchida’, and Lilium ‘Black Beauty’ are among the most resistant.
    Because I’m already growing lilies and fritillarias, I might opt for the wait and see approach, hoping for the chickens or ducks to take care of the problem. Or take the mano a mano approach, regularly inspecting plants to pick off eggs, larvae (yuck), or adults by mano. A container of soapy water held under a leaf is useful for handpicking adults because they drop soil-ward when disturbed — also emitting a defensive chirp or squeal.
    Neem is a relatively nontoxic (to humans) pesticide and deterrent extracted from, you guessed it, the neem tree, in India. It’s effective if sprayed on very young larvae. I have too many crown imperial plants scatted about to easily spray.
    Best of all would be to find some natural controls, and they have been found. Three species of parasitoid wasps (Lemophagus errabundus, Diaparsis jucunda, and, especially, Tetrastichus setifer) have proven effective. Releases have been made in New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Maine, and Connecticut. Come on, New York, let’s get some parasitoids.

What Beautiful Onions, Thank You

    Moving on to another monocotyledenous plant, this one with no pest to speak of: ornamental onions, which also go by their botanical name, alliums.
    (“Monocotyledonous,” what a mouthful! This refers to the plants leaves, or cotyledons, which function either as seed leaves or as storage structures. Monocots are one broad group of flowering plants; dicots, with two seed leaves, are the other broad group).

Alliums starting to open

Alliums starting to open

   Last fall I reported on my planting of Allium giganteum ‘Ambassador’, which makes volleyball-sized heads of purplish blue flowers, and A. hollandicum (or A. aflatuensis) ‘Purple Sensation’, bearing similar flowers in tennis ball- sized heads. Both are nice plants for flower beds, but, as I reported, I wanted to see if they would naturalize in my south meadow.
    Early on, this spring, the experiment seemed a success. The broad, green, strappy onion leaves unfolded, drinking in sunlight, before the surrounding grasses and other meadow plants had hardly budged. As warmer weather moved in, surrounding vegetation grew more boldly, soon beginning to get the upper hand on the onions.Allium hollandicum, Purple Sensation, field2
    Then the onions, the smaller ‘Purple Sensations’ onions, began to bloom. The blue heads were lost, at first, in the sea of dandelions, orchard grass, goldenrod, and other plants coming on strongly. But ‘Purple Sensation’ heads evidently weren’t yet at their peak. They came increasingly into focus as the heads continued spreading their starbursts of blue blossoms. ‘Ambassador’, as I write, has still to show its heads.
    Flowers are pre-packaged within fall-planted bulbs. The true test will be whether or not the alliums bloom as strongly, or at all, next spring. Perhaps the ‘Ambassador’ bulbs will even multiply, as they have in the less competitive terrain of the flower garden.

Alliums in the garden.

Alliums in the garden.

Too Much Respect, Walnut Tech, and Nasturtium Homage

Last week I wrote that popcorn “don’t get no respect,” but should. This week: garlic, why so much respect?. It may be sacrilege — although it was not the case 50 years ago — to say that I’m not crazy over garlic. The amount of space people now devote to garlic in even small gardens never ceases to amaze me. If pressed for garden space, I’d fill every square inch with tomatoes, peppers, peas, and other vegetables that you can sink your teeth into right out in the garden, rather than garlic. You can’t purchase that experience; you can by garlic.
Okay, I do grow some garlic. But not well. My garlic’s roots don’t get to wallow in soft, mellow, compost-enriched, drip-irrigated soil along with my other vegetables. The cloves get tucked in an out of the way place where neighboring plants force its green shoots to stretch for light and the soil is not nearly as nourishing.
A challenge to grow something well can be more attractive than a good harvest, which is what induced me, a few weeks ago, to purchase some heads of California Softneck garlic for planting. Potential problems with this purchase did nothing to restrain me — again, for a potential challenge rather than future flavor.

First, it was a little late for planting. Garlic likes to be settled into the ground in early fall, even as early as late summer. Roots grow as long as the ground temperatures remain above 40°F.. Planted early, then, roots can begin foraging for nutrients and anchoring the cloves against being heaved up and out of the ground as the soil freezes and thaws.

The second problem is with the variety California Softneck. Softneck varieties are generally grown in — guess where? — California, and are generally, not always, less cold-hardy than hardneck varieties. Perhaps my purchase was a cold-hardy softneck. Perhaps not.  California Softneck does not seem to be a true variety name.
Oh well . . . into the ground the cloves went, 4 inches apart. Because everything else was so iffy about this planting, the cloves were awarded prime real estate, right in the vegetable garden. Because of late planting and dubious cold-hardiness, these cloves got further coddling with a mulch of pine needles to slow cooling of the soil.
I like a little garlic and even if California Softneck puts on a poor showing, next summer I will harvest some of the hardneck varieties I planted, as usual, in late summer in an out-of-the-way spot outside the vegetable garden.
Buckets of black walnuts awaiting processing have spurred new technology in backyard black walnut husking. The nuts are ubiquitous, delicious, and free for the taking. Problem is that they are wrapped in spongy, green husks that are messy and tedious to remove.
The usual approaches to husking are stomping on the fruits or driving repeatedly over them, then rubbing off the barely clinging pieces of husk. It’s a lot of stoop labor.
Enter a trowel, the kind with the serrated edge that’s used to spread tile adhesive. One edge of said trowel went into a slit I cut partway into a sturdy piece of wood, which kept the trowel oriented vertically.
  To husk, roll a nut along the serrated edge. With that done, a twist of the halves in opposite directions leaves half the husk in one hand. The other half peels away with ease.  This walnut-trowel technology works especially well with husks whose flesh is still plump, as they are when freshly harvested. Husks go into a bucket and nuts onto a tray for a couple of days of drying, then to the barn loft for a couple of months of curing.
My friend Bill is sticking with his stomping-on-the-fruit method of husking. Sometimes I also walk along and stomp a few nuts before stooping to gather them up. For bulk processing, though, I like using the trowel.
Every time I walk past the arbored gate into my vegetable garden, I get to admire the nasturtium vines hugging and trying to climb the locust posts. Red, orange, and yellow flowers continue to peek out from among the round leaves that still ooze the freshness of summer growth.
Nasturtium offers a lot of bang for the buck. No need to start plants ahead of planting out in spring. I just poke a hole in the ground and drop in one or two of the pea-sized seeds wherever I want a spreading

glob of greenery and flowers — perfect for, softening the stark contrast between a vertical post and flat ground or the sharp-looking edge of a wall.

If that’s not enough to recommend nasturtium, eating them would almost be. Either the leaves or the flowers are a spicy addition to any food. The taste is too sharp to wolf down in any quantity. Nasturtium is good en masse to look at and good with a light touch for eating.

        Late news flash: A few days after I wrote about and was admiring my nasturtium, night temperatures plummeted to 24 degrees F. The flowers melted into a tawny mass of ones and stems, all of which I whisked over to the compost pile before it turned to mush. It was a good run while it lasted.