Snowy Skies & Winter Colors

Snow Outside but Color Inside

A day like this, a gray sky and six inches of fluffy, fresh snow laid gently atop the white already resting on the ground, hardly turns my mind to gardening or plants. Even the greenhouse, usually a cheery horticultural retreat in winter, is dark and cold. Snow on the roof blocks what little light peeks through the gray sky, and the heater doesn’t come alive until the temperature drops to about 37° F.

Carrots from

And then I reach into my mailbox, and out comes summer! Seed and nursery catalogs oozing with photos of fresh carrots, heads of lettuce, juicy peaches, and sunny sunflowers. I’ve already ordered all my seeds, or so I thought until I started thumbing through more catalogs. Offerings in vegetable seeds, in particular, seem to get more interesting each year.

Take carrots, for example. Carrots have long been available in all sort of shapes and sizes. Nowadays, I can also buy seeds for white carrots (White Satin variety), carrots deep purple through and through (Deep Purple variety), and purple carrots with orange centers (Purple Haze variety).

Caulifower is also getting colorful. Its curds no longer need to be only white. The variety Cheddar is the color of orange cheddar cheese. Graffiti is a purple variety, unique among purple cauliflowers for retaining its color after being cooked. Years ago, I used to grow Violet Queen cauliflower, which turns green after being cooked and tastes very good.

I’m not saying that any of these interesting varieties taste better than less flamboyant varieties. Just sayin’ . . . they’re interesting.

Which Hazel?

Besides perusing summer-y seed and nursery catalogs, another antidote for a gray winter day is to get outside and enjoy it. I’m hoping to do that today, to glide through wooded paths on cross-country skiis.

No doubt I will come across plants flaunting winter weather and showing signs of life —even on this gray day. Native witchhazels, the so-called “common witchhazel” (Hamamelis virginiana), ocacionally still are showing off some of their strappy yellow flower petals. Witchhazel in bloomThe flowers don’t exactly jump out at you so you have to get up pretty close to even notice them. Still, they are a sign of plant life in the depths of winter.

Common witchhazel typically begins blooming in September and finishes by December. How seemingly foolish! It’s been hypothesized that they bloom when they do so as not to compete with another species, vernal witchhazel (H. vernalis), where both are native. (This seems an unusual explanation because plant evolution is generally encouraged by cross breeding. That’s why an apple tree, for instance, can’t pollinate itself even though each of its flowers have both male and female parts; it has to cross with pollinate with a genetically different tree to make seeds and fruit.) Vernal witchhazel, at home in the midwest and south, begins blooming in January and might continue until spring.

Even without that competition, not much reproduction is going on with common witchhazel. It has a motley crew of pollinators: tiny wasps, fungus gnats, bees, flies, and winter moths. And even with all those matchmakers, less than 1% of flowers go on to form fruit and make seed. The seeds, 2 per fruit, are shot out of the fruits in autumn. After weevils, caterpillars, wild turkeys, and squirrels have had their fill, only about 15% of those few seeds survive. It’s a wonder that I come upon so many witchhazels in my winter glides and walks.

Looking over plant and garden notes from last year, I see that my cultivated witchhazel, the variety Arnold Promise, bloomed in my front yard in mid-March last year. That variety is a hybrid of Chinese and Japanese species. It blossoms later and its blossoms are much, much showier and more fragrant.

Sow Already?

Sowing onions indoors

Last year, sowing onion seeds

According to my notes, I’m due to plant onion seeds sometime soon. Yes, seeds. Seeds are the only way to be able to choose from the widest selection of onion varieties. Still, seeing witchhazel flowers will not be enough to well up in me an urge to plant anything. Tomorrow will be sunny; that should do it.

Update: Except that I chose the sunny day to go skiing instead. The onion seeds can wait. Growth is so slow early in the season that, come early May, there’s little difference in size among seedlings grown from seed planted now or within the next couple of weeks. 


New York Avocadoes!?!?

    I make no claim to be rational in my gardening — especially this time of year. This thought comes to mind as I look closely at two avocado plants sitting in a sunny window. “Nothing irrational about growing avocado plants in New York,” you might say. After all, the large seeds are fun and easy to sprout, and the resulting plant adds some tropical greenery indoors.
    My two plants were run-of-the-mill avocado houseplants until I took knife to them.
    Let’s backtrack . . . Among my regrets of not living 1,000 miles or so south of here is not being able to harvest my own citrus and avocados. (Also, no outdoor gardenia shrubs or southern magnolia trees here.) A few indoor citrus plants do call mi casa sus casa. But no avocados.Avocado grafts
    From seed, an avocado would take a long time before it bore its first fruit. And especially long under less-that-ideal northern conditions, including indoors in winter.
    And worse, when the plant does finally flower, it might not bear fruit. Avocados generally need cross-pollination because the pollen isn’t ripe at the same time that the female stigma is receptive. Avocado pollinators need to be fairly specific, so that one plant’s pollen is in synch with another plant’s stigmas.
    And even worse, after all that time and hoping for appropriate mates, fruits that do form might not taste good. They wouldn’t be selected clones, such as the delectable Haas or Mexicola, but seedlings. (Plant a seed from a good tasting apple and the resulting tree has only one in 10,000 chance of bearing a good-tasting fruit.)
    Which is why I took a knife to my two avocado seedlings, to graft them to known, good-tasting varieties that are pollination compatible. A friend in Florida overnighted me scions — pencil-thick stems, with leaves stripped — cut from his Marcus Pinkham and Lula avocado trees. One of my seedlings got a whip graft of Marcus Pinkham; the other got a side-veneer graft of Lulu.
    I coverWithed both grafts with plastic to maintain humidity, and every day peer at the scions hoping to see some swelling in preparation for growth.
    Rational gardening? No. After all, even if all goes as planned, how many avocados could I expect to harvest from two small trees? Still, it’s fun.

Warm. Plant.

    Outdoors, it’s the weather that toys with my rationality. A spate of warm days and great restraint is needed not to plant vegetables. I keep referring to my notes (and the chart I made in my book Weedless Gardening) that tell me when to plant what.
  Planting onions  With yesterday’s 75 degree temperatures, urges to plant were satisfied — for that day, at least — by my poking holes into the ground into which I dropped onion plants sown indoors on February 1st. Three-hundred of them in a 20 foot long by 36 inch wide bed. (This was later than the April 21st onion planting date specified in my book, but the weather was cold so I forgot to look at my book.)

Planting Break. Turn Compost.

    When I get tired of planting, I can always turn to turning my compost piles.
    Not that compost piles have to be turned. In contrast to other fermentations, such as bread-making and wine-making, compost always comes out right. Pile up any mix of organic (living or once-living) materials, and eventually you get compost.
    I turn my compost piles so that materials on the outside of the pile get to be on the inside of the pile, second time around. This makes for a more homogeneous finished product.Turning compost
    I turn my compost piles to better monitor their progress, so adjustments can be made, as needed, and to get some idea when they’ll be ready for use. Occasionally, a pile will have a dry region; it gets watered. Occasionally, a mass of material needs to be broken up to better expose it to moisture and microorganisms.
    I also turn my compost piles because it’s good exercise and it’s interesting. But, like I wrote, turning a compost pile is not a must.

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.