A Big, Fat, Red Flower; Perfect For Now

One spring day many years ago, my friend Bill looked out upon the daffodils blooming and other stirrings, and summed up the scene with the statement that “It’s spring and everything is wigglin’.” We haven’t yet come that far along, but things are wigglin’ — indoors. (Little did I know that 2 days after writing this, all would be buried under two feet of snow!)

Most dramatic among the wigglins is the big, fat flower bud pushing up from the big, fat amaryllis bulb. True, the goal of most people is to have the flamboyant, red blossoms open for Christmas, which requires beginning a bulb’s dormant period in the middle of August. It’s cool temperatures, around 55°F., and dry soil that puts an amaryllis bulb to sleep. Then, in early November, warm temperatures and just a little water wakens the bulb out of its slumber, with increasing watering, commensurate with its growth, bringing the bulb fully awake and ready to burst forth in bloom 6 weeks later.Amaryllis late last winter

In mid-August, I’m more focussed on harvesting tomatoes and peppers, readying endive for October harvests, making compost, and other garden goings-on than on the amaryllis bulb that I tipped out of its pot and planted in the ground in late spring. And anyway, a few red flowers, even flamboyant ones, do little to counteract December’s grayness.

So I let my amaryllis flower in its time, which should be within a couple of weeks or so, and add to the indoor late winter wrigglin.

Citruses Come Awake

Much more exciting are the less dramatic signs of growth on some of my potted subtropical trees.

As subtropical plants, citrus trees push out multiple flushes of growth through the year. The first flush is about to begin on Meyer lemon, Golden Nugget mandarin, and Meiwa kumquat.

One or more of those citrus flushes also bears flowers, which lead to fruits. The kumquat typically flowers late. My Golden Nugget mandarin hasn’t yet ever flowered for me, so I’m not sure when to expect those blossoms. Wait! Do I see the tiny beginnings of a flower bud on that nascent stem?

Golden Nugget awakening

Golden Nugget awakening

Meyer lemon is notorious for its free flowering. Looking closely, I see that some of the new growth includes flower buds. At the same time, I see that the lemon fruits that had their beginnings last year are now swelling more rapidly. I’m predicting to have new lemons forming even as I am harvesting ripe ones.Meyer lemon flower buds

Fresh-picked Avocados, in New York?

Most exciting are the fat buds expanding on my potted avocado tree, grown from a seed I planted a couple of years ago. I grafted this seedling with a stem of the Marcus Pumpkin variety of avocado that I got about this time last year from a friend in Florida.

An avocado tree grown from seed would take many years — if ever, as a houseplant this far north — to reach maturity, that is, to be old enough to be able to flower and fruit. A stem taken from a fruiting plant is already mature, though, and remains so even if grafted on a young seedling. The grafted stem of Marcus Pumpkin on my avocado tree is, in fact, about to burst into bloom.

Avocado flower buds

Avocado flower buds


Much can happen ‘twixt the bloom and the mouth; I’m guardedly hopeful to be guacamole-ing freshly plucked avocados in a few months. The problem is synchronous dichogamy, which may end up being more of a mouthful than my avocado fruit. The upshot of this mouthful is that each of an avocado plant’s gazillion flowers stays open for 2 days. When the flower first opens it is in the female phase, receptive to pollen; this phase lasts 2 to 4 hours. Day 2 has the flower in its male phase, shedding pollen. The male and female flower parts being out of synch is good for avocado evolution but bad for me as far as home-grown gucamole.

Depending on the variety, avocado flowers might be Type A or Type B. Type A flowers are not ambitious, competitive, or impatient like Type A humans. Or maybe they are, because the female parts are open and receptive only in the morning of the first day; these same flowers open as males in the afternoon of the second day. Type B flowers aren’t ready for action until the afternoon of their first day; then they open a males the next morning.

The upshot of all this is that it’s best to have two different avocado varieties, a Type A and a Type B. The morning phase of Type B, as males, can pollinate the morning phase of Type A, which are females. And vice versa.

Marcus Pumpkin is a Type B avocado. When I grafted it, I also grafted Lula, a Type A avocado, on another seedling. Although Lula failed to take, all may not be lost. My plan is to dab the Marcus Pumpkin flowers in the afternoon with an artist’s brush, tap the pollen into a petri dish, cover it, and the next morning dab the brush from the collected pollen to the Marcus Pumpkin flowers in their female phase.

Perhaps I’ll be harvesting fresh avocados in a few months. Perhaps I’ll be just buying fresh avocados in a few months. At any rate, as a northern gardener, it’s very exciting to have my avocado tree about to flower.

And Even Hints Of Spring Outdoors

All is not so quiescent outside. After a couple of warm days, I see that winter aconites have spread their cheery, yellow petals. (But not for long.)Winter aconite


‘Tis the Season

    ’Tis the season to really put the “organic” in organic gardening. “Organic,” as in organic materials, natural compounds composed mostly of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. “Organic,” as in materials that are or were once living, things like compost, leaves, manure, and hay.Vegetable beds in autumn
    I’ve spread compost over almost all my vegetable garden beds. A one inch depth laid atop each bed provides all the nutrients the vegetable plants need for a whole season, in addition to other benefits such as snuffing out weeds, holding moisture, improving aeration, and nurturing beneficial, pest-fighting organisms.Compost piles
    I’m also finishing up the bulk of making new compost for the year. Pretty much everything organic — old vegetable plants, kitchen trimmings, even old cotton clothing — go into the compost piles. The primary foods, though, are hay, which I scythe, rake up, and then haul over from my hayfield, and horse manure, which I pitchfork into the bed of my truck, then unload into a garden cart to haul over to the compost bins.
    Autumn leaves piled up last year have rotted down into “leaf mold,” essentially the same material as compost, with the same benefits. This pile arrived as a truckload last autumn thanks to the generosity of a local landscaper. The leaf mold isn’t quite as thoroughly broken down as the compost so I’m hauling that over to all my young trees and shrubs, and then spreading it beneath them.
    I’m also on the lookout for trash bags stuffed with leaves. Local leaf gatherers/baggers contact me when bags are ready for pickup. I toss the bulging bags into the bed of my pickup truck, then haul them over to and unbag them beneath my blueberry, raspberry, currant, and gooseberry bushes.

Organic Matters

    All this compost, hay, manure, leaf mold, and leaves are food for soil organisms. Most of the food is carbohydrates, the carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen that combine to make sugars, starches, cellulose, chitin, and pectin of living organisms. As carbohydrates are gobbled up, nutrients are released for plants.
    In their raw state, these organic materials are relatively low in plant nutrients. Compare the one pound of phosphate you get from ten pounds of 10-10-10 chemical fertilizer with the 100 pounds of compost you need to offer  that same amount of phosphorus.Raking hayfield
    You could get that one pound of phosphate from only ten pounds of an “organic” source such as bone meal. That would be easier than shoveling out 100 pounds of compost — but the soil would then be deprived of 90 pounds of carbohydrate and other bulk that feeds soil organisms and, in turn, bestows physical, nutritional, and biological benefits in the soil.
    So I’m continuing to haul manure, hay, leaves, leaf mold, and compost for my garden. It’s also good exercise.  

A Beaut’ Worth Reviving for Winter

    Much lighter work is digging up an amaryllis bulb. I’ve always considered amaryllis too gaudy a plant, one giant, often flaming red flower appearing atop a bare stalk in early winter. And then, last autumn, someone sent me a big, fat amaryllis bulb along with a pot to plant it in, as well as some potting mix. How could I help but plant it?

Amaryllis now

Amaryllis now

    The flowers were prolific and awesome, flower after flower (yes, flaming red) appearing on each stalk, and stalk after stalk of flowers. This one was a keeper.
    Green leaves, the more the better, are what fuel the following year’s blossoms. (One flower stalk for every nine leaves, according to one source.) Periodic little fertilizer and, as needed, water kept the plant growing well until warm weather settled in for good in spring. Then I tipped the bulb out of its pot and nestled into a hole in a bed in part shade with rich soil and drip irrigation.

Amaryllis late last winter

Amaryllis late last winter

    Just before a night when temperatures dipped into the low 20s, I dug up the bulb and potted it up. It now sits, unwatered and leafless, in the cool temperatures of my north-facing mudroom. A couple of months of cool temperatures, 50 to 60°F, is good for waking up the flower buds within the now fatter bulb — and its small, baby pup, thank you.

It’s Bulbing Time


Mar 2: Miami Valley (Dayton, OH) Garden Conference: WEEDLESS GARDENING

Mar 9: Philadelphia Flower Show: FRUIT GROWING SIMPLIFIED


Mar 16, Thetford, VT: FEARLESS PRUNING


April 10, Rosendale (NY) Library: BACKYARD COMPOSTING


April 28, WV Master Gardener’s Assoc (Flatwoods, WV): MY WEEDLESS GARDEN

May 11, Margaret Roach’s Garden (Copake Falls, NY): BACKYARD FRUIT LECTURE (morning), GRAFTING WORKSHOP (afternoon)

May 16, Brookside Gardens (Wheaton, MD): MY WEEDLESS GARDEN



The official start for this year’s growing season, which I count as the day when I sow my first vegetable seeds, will begin momentarily. Actually, the season should have already been underway, as of February 1st,  but I put in my seed order a little late so am tapping my foot and (im)patiently waiting for the seeds to arrive in the mail. That first sowing is, of course, indoors, and the seeds will be onions, leeks, and celery. The most interesting of the three, as far as growing, is onion.

Sowing onion seeds indoors would not be a necessity, except that I want to grow onions that will keep until this time next year and that are reasonably large and that taste good. Onion sets — those mini-onion bulbs available everywhere in spring — would be the easiest way to grow onions, but you get little choice of varieties. The best-keeping onions are the so-called American-types, which are relatively firm and pungent. European-type onions are large and sweet, but don’t keep as well.
I’ll soon be sowing seeds of New York Early and Varsity, two American types, and Sedona, a European type. New York early is only mildly pungent, so is good in salad, medium size, and stores well. Varsity has good storage and large size to recommend it. And Sedona, although a European-type, store pretty well; I’ll eat them first. You won’t find any of these varieties as sets in local or mail-order garden stores.
There’s one more wrinkle in my selection of an onion variety. The plants, whether bulbs, seedlings, or direct-sown seeds, grow well, pumping out leaf after leaf, under cool, moist conditions. But as the growing season moves on and the sun stays above the horizon for a certain number of hours per day — just how long depends on the specific onion variety — a “switch” in the plant flips that tells the plant to stop making new leaves and start pumping energy to making bulbs. In the South, onions are planted either in autumn or midwinter to mature in late winter or early spring. Varieties adapted there are “short-day” varieties that bulb up when days have only about 12 hours of sunlight. Here in New York’s Hudson valley that would happen sometime in March so even if the plants were outdoors, they’d have grown so few leaves that the bulbs would be very puny.
Northern onion varieties are “long-day” types, not bulbing up until daylength is 15 or 16 hours. Here in the Hudson Valley, those daylengths occur in June. The more leaves my onions grow before then, the bigger the bulbs. I could sow the seed outdoors in April and they’ll grow some before that switch flips on. By planting now, more greenery has more time to develop, and the more greenery on the plant before June, the bigger the bulbs.
A Clementine tangerine box is just the right size for sowing 6 rows of onions sees. Once those seeds arrive (tomorrow, I hope), I’ll fill the box with potting soil, make six furrows, and drop 7 seeds per inch into each furrow. Once the seeds are covered and the box watered, the box needs to be kept warm and moist until green sprouts poke through the surface.
Onions aren’t the only bulbs that should be getting under way around here.

Two big, fat amaryllis bulbs arrived as mailorder gifts a couple of weeks ago. I’m not a big fan of giant amaryllises, so they just sat in their opened box. They’ve been sprouting and even showing signs of big, fat flower buds. I couldn’t torture them anymore so finally potted them up.
Down in my cold basement I dug last season’s begonia bulbs (actually, they are tubers, or thickened, underground stems) out of storage. I tucked them in among some wood shavings in an old aquarium last autumn. In contrast to the big, fat amaryllis bulbs, the begonia bulbs didn’t look like much more than rough, brown clods of soil. Moved to warmth, with the sawdust kept moistened with a bit of water — too much and the tubers will rot — those lifeless-looking lumps should sprout leaves, and then, by June, flowers. The appeal of the begonias, which I grew from dust-like seeds a couple of years ago, is that the foliage is attractive and the fire-engine red flowers are, in contrast to those of amaryllis, proportional to the size of the leaves and the plant, and they’re borne nonstop right up until autumn.