I Grow Taller

“Make hay while the sun shines” is fine advice in its season. For winter, how about? “Prune while the snow is high and firm.” 

My apple and pear trees are semi-dwarf, presently ranging from seven to eleven feet tall. Even though I have a pole pruner and various long-reach pruning tools, I still carry my three-legged orchard ladder out to the trees with me to work on their upper branches. Sometimes you have to get your eyes and arms and hands right up near where you’re actually cutting.
Pruning on snow
A few years ago, as I was looking out the window and admiring the foot or of snow on the ground, I realized that all that snow could give me a literal leg up on pruning. If I stayed on top of the snow, that is. While the snow was still soft, I was able to do this by strapping on a pair of snowshoes, which I bought, used, just for this purpose. (For travel through snow, I prefer to glide, on skis.) When the snow melted a little and then froze, the icy crust that formed was able to support my weight sans snowshoes.

In any case, when there’s a good depth on the ground, such as today, I gather my tools – minus the stepladder – and walk tall out to the trees.

 Top Down Pruning

Plants, like other creatures, have hormones, and a hormone (called auxin) in every plant generally coaxes uppermost portions to grow most vigorously. Which is why old apple trees become topheavy, with most shoot growth high up. The upshot of this habit is that most fruit is borne high in the branches, out of reach, and lower branches are shaded to become unproductive and prone to disease. 

  Ideally, then, the best place to start pruning is with the most vigorous branches, highest in the tree. That’s also the last place you want to start if you’re standing at ground level. Perched atop a good depth of snow next to my smaller trees, starting near the top was much easier.

  If I get high enough (in the tree), I can imagine that I’m hovering above the branches, looking at them from the perspective of ol’ Sol, which is a good perspective for a grower of fruit trees. This allows a more objective perspective on which branches are going to be blocking light or otherwise cramping others for space.
Pruning in snow
Letting more light and air in among the branches and, at the same time removing potential fruits with pruned branches, channels more of each tree’s energy into perfecting those fruits that remain. Remaining fruits are then healthier, larger, and more flavorful, especially for naturally larger fruits such as apples, pears, and peaches

Snow Tales

The snow is a blank canvas that records some winter activities. My dogs’ footprints are obvious and telling. They are provincial in their travels, having beaten paths from their doghouses, where they sleep, to the driveway, where they greet humanity, and to the deck, where they lie in the sun.

 Daisy and Sammy at work

Daisy and Sammy at work

Less frequent are their forays out into the hay field to do their business and to see if anything interesting is creeping around out there.

The small, padded footprints of my cat hasn’t beaten out paths. The cat more randomly explores out-of-the-way nooks and crannies. She also likes to steer clear of the dogs, who consider her just another small animal worth chasing.

Cat, Gracie at work

Gracie at work

The distinctive footprints that I’m keeping the closest eye out for are those of rabbits and deer. Now, about when I typically delude myself that all danger has past, periods of warmer weather start coaxing rabbits to wander about and eye my trees and shrubs as food. Now is also when cottontail rabbits start reproducing, the first of up to five litters for this year, with a half dozen or so bunnies per litter! Very cute, but deadly to my plants.

  This winter, a couple of deep snows either brought deer here or displayed their abundance with tracks in the snow. For the rabbits, who feed on young trees and low branches, I sometimes make up a spray of white latex paint, water, eggs, cinnamon, and hot pepper. That needs to be re-applied about now. Traps I set out for them are thoroughly and safely (for the rabbits) buried in snow. Perhaps I’ll dig them out and re-set them.

The uncluttered expanse of snow makes it easy to see where I put my pruning tools as I prune the apples and pears. The snow also makes it easy to see where I drop the prunings.

Deer tracks in the snow

Deer tracks in the snow

And why do I care where I drop my prunings? Because I can then quickly look at them to see if any bark has been gnawed off those freshly cut branches. And what would gnaw bark off those freshly cut branches. Rabbits!

No sign of rabbits – yet, at least – on those prunings as well as on tracks in the snow. Thank you Gracie (my cat).

The dogs’ are supposed to be keeping deer at bay, but do so only if they are out and about when deer are around. This year I’ve been relying on Bobbex repellent, which I spray monthly on branches that would be within reach of the deer. So far, the sprays have been 100% effective even on trees with deer tracks right beside them in the snow.

Get Ready for Spring

I will be hosting a WEEDLESS GARDENING webinar on Monday, February 22nd for $35.  It will run from 7-8:30 pm EST and there will be plenty of opportunity to ask questions. For details, go to Or trust me, and go right to registration (required) at 


Free and Attractive Mulch

  Beautiful. Floating down from the sky. A white blanket of “poor man’s manure.” That’s what gardeners and farmers have called snow.
Garden under snow
In fact, snow does take some nitrogen from the air and bring it down to ground level for plant use in spring. Not that much, though. Just a few shovelfuls of real manure could supply the same amount of nitrogen as a blanket of snow.

  Mostly, what I like about the 15 inch deep fluffy whiteness now on the ground is the way it insulates what’s beneath it. Fluctuating winter temperatures wreak havoc on plants, coaxing them awake and asleep and awake and asleep as air temperatures go up and down and up and down. Each time plants are awakened, they become more susceptible to subsequent cold, the whole problem exacerbated with borderline hardy plants.

Anticipating cold weather and snow, last fall I cut back a cardoon plant and two artichoke plants, covered each with a large, upturned plastic planter, and then smothered everything in autumn leaves. Cardoon and artichoke, in fall with leafy coverBoth kinds of plants are probably cold-hardy to about zero degrees Fahrenheit, but here winter temperatures, except last winter, typically drop to about minus 20 decrees Fahrenheit. That snowy blanket provides extra protection that the plants might need — especially after last Saturday’s unseasonal low of minus 8 degrees.Cardoon and artichoke, snow covered

  Hardy orange (Citrus trifoliata) is another plant to benefit from snow cover. It’s a Citrus that’s allegedly cold-hardy into zone 5 (-20°F minimum temperature). I planted some seeds outdoors a few years ago and, while their roots survive winter cold, the tops die back to resprout each spring. I also planted out a more mature hardy orange that was given to me; it also suffered some cold damage.

The deeper this winter’s snow and the longer it stays deep, the more of the hardy oranges’ stems will survive till spring. Perhaps, helped along with global warming, enough of the above ground parts of the plants will survive to reward me one year with sweet-smelling blossoms and, less appealing, their very puckery fruits.

Multiplying Currants and Grapes

  Last fall, I cut stems from my black currants and grapes into 8 inch lengths. In the bare ground between some dwarf apple trees, I scratched some lines and pushed a straight-bladed shovel into the ground on that line. Levering the handle of the shovel opened up just enough space in which to shove one or two of those cut stems, distal ends up, right up to their topmost buds. Then I moved along the scratched line, pushed the shovel in again, shoved in more stems, and so on down each line. If all goes well, each of those stems will grow into a good sized plant that I can dig up and transplant next autumn.
Rooted currant cuttings
  That is, unless alternating freezing and thawing of the soil heaves those stems up and out of the ground. I’ve seen it happen, leaving a row of carefully inserted stems sitting on top of the ground by winter’s end.

  All of which is another reason I’m thankful for the snow. In addition to protecting plants from cold, the blanket modulates soil temperatures, keeping cold soil cold, which is how I’d like it to remain until spring. I could have — should have — thrown some fluffy, organic mulch, such as leaves or straw, over the stems to do the same thing. But I didn’t. I hope the snow stays.

Where One Plus One Does Not Equal Two, Figuratively Speaking

The harvest has begun: I picked the first fruit of the season this week. Not only that, but it was the first fruit I harvested from the particular plant. The fruit was a Sunquat, planted in a pot a year and a half ago. It summers outdoors and winters indoors, basking in sunlight streaming through a south-facing window.
Not many people have heard of Sunquats. I hadn’t. Citrus plants hybridize freely and Sunquat is one of many citrus hybrids, this one a mating of kumquat (Citrus japonica) and Meyer lemon. I happen to be a big fan of the tart flesh and spicy, sweet skins of kumquat fruits. I also happen to be a big fan of Meyer lemon, which is not a true lemon but is probably a hybrid of lemon and sweet orange.

Meyer lemons are juicy and somewhat sweet, with a flowery aroma. They also bear prolifically. As testimonial to their precocity, I once had a cutting that flowered soon after rooting, when it was only a few inches tall.
Meyer lemon cuttings rooted

  So what could be bad about combining kumquat and Meyer lemon? A Sunquat! The skin was sour without picking up any of the spicy tang of a kumquat’s skin. The flesh was much less puckery than kumquat or lemon, but was uninteresting, just bland. Perhaps harvesting a bit underripe, before the skins turn full yellow, will put some pizazz in a Sunquat.

If not, I’ll stick to growing Meyer lemons and kumquats, each on their own and with their own delectable flavor.
Meiwa kumquat plant

The End

Snow Day

On December 2nd, my gardening season officially ended. It was brought to a screeching halt as a foot of heavy, white powder descended to democratically blanket my meadow, my vegetable beds, my terraces, and my deck.
Snow in garden, Dec. 4
I have to admit that it was welcome as I had spent the previous few weeks furiously getting ready for the end. Compost now covers most of the vegetable beds. Wood chips and neighbors’ raked leaves lie thickly beneath berry bushes and recently planted Korean pine (for nuts), chestnut, and pear trees.

Left in place, the one tunnel protecting a bed in the vegetable garden would have been collapsed by a heavy snow; I dismantled it. This tunnel consisted of metal hoops, 4 feet apart, each 5 feet long with either end pushed into the ground at each edge of the bed. The row of hoops was covered with vented, clear plastic and then, for added cold protection, a layer of “row cover” (a diaphanous fabric that lets air, water, and some light penetrate while affording a few additional degrees of cold protection).
Clear plastic tunnel
I secured the clear plastic and the row cover layers by “planting” another metal hoop over them, right where the first hoops were”planted.” This setup makes it easy to slide the layers up and down, as needed, to reach in for harvest.
Tunnel and cat
After dismantling the hoops and coverings, I picked over what remained. Cold  had turned the few heads of lettuce left in the tunnel to mush. Surprisingly, a few small heads of pac choi (the varieties Joi Choi and Prize Choi) and large heads of napa type Chinese cabbage (the variety Blues) were in pretty much perfect condition.
Chinese cabbage, harvested from tunnel
My surprise came about because I had checked my minimum-maximum thermometer which registered the minimum temperature this fall as having dipped as low as 11° Fahrenheit. That’s very good protection from a thin layer of clear plastic topped by a layer of row cover — coupled with what are evidently quite cold-hardy varieties of Chinese cabbage.

Cloche History

Cold protection has come a long way since I started gardening. Over the years, cold protection devices, commercial and home-made, have undergone various incarnations in my gardens. Early on, with a bow to traditional cloches, I cut bottoms off gallon glass jugs for mini-greenhouses over individual or groups of very small plants.

(Cloche, pronounced klōsh, is the French word for “bell.” The original cloches were large bell-shaped jars that 19th-century French market gardeners placed over plants in spring and fall to act as portable miniature greenhouses. At one time, these glass jars covered acres of fields outside Paris that supplied out-of-season vegetables to the city’s households and restaurants.)

The classic glass bell jars are still available but have some significant limitations. Because they’re made from heavy glass and are small, the air trapped within can quickly get too hot on sunny days, cooking plants. And close attention needs to be paid to ventilation. A professional gardening friend, trained many years in France, tells of trudging out to cloche-covered fields on bright, frosty mornings to slide a block of wood under one side of each cloche to vent it during sunny days. In late afternoon he’d walk the field kicking out the blocks, setting each cloche flat on the ground to seal the warm air in for the night.

Although modern versions of these individual cloches are not as elegant as the traditional glass bell jars, some offer the same or a better degree of frost protection, are made of lightweight materials, are easier to vent, and are more convenient to store.

Modern variations on the cloche include: Clear umbrellas, which fold and unfold for easy storage, with spike handles that hold them in place; lightweight, durable, and inexpensive plastic versions of the traditional glass jar cloche; plastic milk jugs with the bottoms cut and vented by opening the lid; waxed-paper Hot Kaps. These vary in the degree of cold protection they offer as well as the size of the area they protect.

Tunnel type cloches protect whole rows or beds of plants. My original tunnel cloches were ersatz, British-made Chase cloches, which cleverly held glass panes into a ventable barn shape. Placed end to end, they created a tunnel, mini-greenhouse. I originally made my own from straightened coat hangar wire, then got hold of the real thing.

Chase cloches

Chase cloches

Problem was, I discovered, that they work best in climates where temperatures are moderated, such as in northern Europe or near large bodies of water. (Anybody in those locations want some Chase cloche wires?)

So I graduated to the much more effective but much less attractive tunnel cloches, or “tunnels,” I described above.

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. 

Fruit in Winter!


Snow Mulching

Only four inches of snow fell a a couple of weeks ago but I decided anyway to go outside and mulch. And shovel snow. And shovel snow and mulch.

What I was trying to do, besides clear snow from the driveway, the paths, and the doorway to the greenhouse, was to create a microclimate. A microclimate is a small area where the climate is slightly different from the general climate.

One group of plants in need of this special treatment are my maypops, Passiflora incarnata. Yes, Passiflora genus is that of passionflower, and maypop is a hardy species of passionflower, native to eastern U.S.. It bears the same breathtaking flowers, whose intricate arrangement of flower parts was used by Christian missionaries to teach native Americans about the “passion” of Christ, as the tropical species. White maypop flowerAnd, like the tropical species, flowers are followed by egg-shaped fruits filled with air and seeds around which clings a delectable gelatinous coating. You know the flavor if you’ve ever tasted Hawaiian punch.

Maypop parts ways with tropical passionflowers, which are woody vines, in being an herbaceous vine. The roots live year ‘round but the above ground portions of the plant die back each winter.

Besides creating a microclimate for the maypops, I also chose to plant them in an existing microclimate to their liking. That is on the south side of my woodshed, where the sun bears down to provide extra warmth in summer. (Another goal was to let the vines each summer cover a trellis that would give the woodshed some shade to prevent the firewood from drying out to much.) These plants of southeastern U.S. like their summers hot.

Soil moderates temperatures so never get as cold in winter as the air — or, in summer, as hot as the air. Five feet down, soils remain at a balmy 50°F year ‘round. Shallower depths are commensurately colder in winter and warmer in summer than deeper down.

Maypop is borderline hardy this far north. Insulating the ground around the plants will keep temperatures around the roots from dropping too low. Hence the snowy mulch.

As maypop grows through the summer, new flowers and then fruits appear. The longer the growing season, the more fruits the plants bear. Although I want to keep the ground from getting too cold in the depths of winter, I’d like it to warm up quickly in spring to get the plants going.

Wood chips, straw, snow, or any other mulch is going to put the brakes on soil warming, so, ideally, the mulch should be removed after the coldest part of winter is past. Except if that mulch is snow, which will melt.

Ugly but Delicious

Wandering through the snow to the other side of the farmden, I come upon another fruit, this one ready to pick and eat right now! Medlar. (Medlar and maypop each warranted a whole chapter in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden.)

Medlar fruits resemble small, russeted apples (a relative), tinged dull yellow or red, with their calyx ends (across from the stems) flared open. Medlar, fruit in basketIt’s peak of popularity was in the Middle Ages. And though popular, it was made fun of for it’s appearance; Chaucer called it the “open-arse” fruit.

That old-fashioned look extends to the tree itself, which even this time of year is attractive with the elbowed contortions of its branches. In spring, the blossoms, which resemble wild roses, are borne singly at the ends of branches and, opening late so that each is cradled in already opened whorl of leaves.

But back to the fruit; its got another quirk, besides its appearance. It’s inedible when first harvested. But after the fruit has sat for a couple of weeks or more indoors, a process called bletting, the once-hard, white flesh turns to brown mush.

Medlar, after bletting

Medlar, after bletting

Yechhhh! The flavor, though, has a refreshing briskness with winy overtones, like old-fashioned applesauce laced with cinnamon.

Fruits left on the tree also blet, and my trees are loaded with fruits.

Uh oh. Although medlar is generally pest-free, I see that many of the fruits have what looks like some sort of pest damage. Instead of the smooth, brown mush, flesh of damaged fruits is drier, almost powdery. What is it?

(Almost?) Hardy Orange

More snow more recently fell, and with it came bitter cold, which made me fear for the survival of my hardy orange, Citrus trifoliata. This orange is allegedly hardy to zone 5, but still . . .

The plant is only about four feet tall and there was plenty of snow so I just started piling snow on top of it. The ends of some branches remained exposed, which is okay because they can tell me whether the plant is really hardy.

Hardy orange bears flowers and fruits very similar to sweet oranges except that hardy orange fruits are bitter and very seedy. They could be used — in moderation — for flavoring, though. Citrus, Flying DragonHardy orange fruitMostly I grow it for the novelty of an outdoor orange tree, for the sweetly fragrant blossoms, and for the decorative, green, swirling, recurved spiny stems.

Come spring, I;’ll know if just how hardy the hardy orange really is. Temperature the night after covering it dropped to minus 18° Fahrenheit.


An Easy Orchid

Orchids are one group of plants I’ve regularly sidestepped. It seemed to me that if you grew orchids, you became crazed over orchids, to the exclusion of other plants. You then fill your home with as many of the over 20,000 species as you can cram onto your windowsills. I feared being led down that path.

My sidestepping took a turn into orchid-land 25 years ago when a local orchid enthusiast gave me a plant of Odontoglossum pulchellum, which I today learned has also been called lily-of-the-valley orchid. But more importantly today, the plant is in bloom. Blossoms from this plant are no rare occurrence; it’s bloomed every year for about the past 20 years, some years around now and other years waiting until February to unfold.Odontoglossum pulchellum orchid

Odontoglossum pulchellum doesn’t sport knock-your-socks-off, traffic-stopping blossoms; instead, they have a soft, subtle beauty. Right now, delicate, arching flower stems rise up from clusters of torpedo-shaped, green pseudobulbs that are perched up out of the “soil.” Eight to 10 dainty, waxy, white blossoms line up along each flowering stem and waft a sweet fragrance, more like paper-whites than lily-of-the-valley to me, that transports me to spring.

I get all this for very little effort and without becoming orchid-crazy. For years, I didn’t know the name of my plants so couldn’t even look up how to grow them. Rather than pot them up in any special orchid soil, I merely mix an equal volume of wood chips from my outdoor pile into my regular, homemade potting soil, along with a bit of soybean meal for extra nitrogen. I keep the plants in a sunny window in winter and sometimes move them outdoors in summer, dividing and repotting the pseudobulbs to make new plants.

For this bit of effort, I get fragrant, white blossoms every winter, and they last for at least a month. Odontoglossum pulchellum is easy to multiply yet I’ve happily managed to restrain myself to keeping only 3 or 4 plants after I’ve divided and repotted them each spring.

Easy Celery

Growing good celery demands a gardener’s greatest skill, and this year, in the greenhouse, I have the finest celery I’ve ever tasted or grown. The stalks are large, thick, juicy, even a little sweet. Unfortunately, I’m not sure I can take credit for this horticultural achievement.

Every summer I sow celery seed to transplant into my minimally heated greenhouse to provide stalks for salads and soups throughout winter. I do take credit for selecting a good variety: Ventura. I also take credit for providing good soil conditions; each year I slather an inch or so of ripe compost on all the beds in the greenhouse. And I’ll take credit for providing timely watering, with drip irrigation until a couple of weeks ago and by hand through winter.Self-sown Ventura celery

Ventura is an open-pollinated, rather than a hybrid, variety, which means that I can save my own seed for replanting each year. Beginning a few years ago, I’d allow one or two of the greenhouse Ventura plants that began to form flower umbels to do their thing and make seed, which they did prodigiously. I’d collect seed for planting the following season’s outdoor and indoor celery.

Some of those seeds would drop to the ground and germinate right in the greenhouse. These “volunteers” sometimes grew into seedlings as good or better than the plants I would later transplant back into the greenhouse.

So a couple of years ago I decided to let the celery self-sow freely in the greenhouse. Later in winter, I’ll transplant some of those seedlings into pots for eventual planting out in the garden.

In the greenhouse, I thin out excess seedlings, keeping the largest ones, which are already large enough for harvest. The stalks, especially welcome in winter, are, as I wrote above, “large, thick, juicy, even a little sweet.” I like to think I had a hand in horticultural achievement.

And Nothing To Do (For Now)

Nothing like a little snowfall to clean everything up in the garden. December 11th was the date of the first snow, followed by a second one on the 17th. The white blankets covered the pile of crocosmia leaves lying on the ground and waiting to be carted over to the compost bin, some weeds that sprouted in the mulched area beneath the dwarf apples, some of the smaller plants I haven’t yet cleared from vegetable beds, and numerous other messy distractions. The whole view was knit together in the sea of whiteness.Winter garden scene

Spells of warmer weather and bright sunshine have eroded away some of the snow, mostly taking the fluffy, white lines and dots that rested atop fences and their fenceposts. The ground, as I write, is still pretty much covered in a white blanket. While I’m enjoying the wintry scene, I can forget about about the few odd jobs still left to do that are patiently waiting beneath the the snow.

Fuzzy Buds and Snow Removal; Where’s the White Cat?

Did the cheery looking box of “Mickey Mouse” adhesive bandages my friend Bill handed me actually contain adhesive bandages? No. Instead, fuzzy green buds spilled out. An illicit drug? No, again. Those “buds” were sweet fern seeds, which Bill suggested planting.
Sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina) is a native plant, one of my favorites, valued for its resinous aroma. That aroma always transports me in time back to summer days hiking in the White Mountains along sunny, dirt roads lined with sweet fern when I was nine years old. Poor  (but well drained) soil and hot afternoon sun bring out the best in sweet fern. The plant makes do in poor soil by getting its nitrogen from the air with the help of a symbiotic microorganism.
Sweet fern is attractive even if it lacks the flamboyance of showy flowers or colorful leaves. Picture clumps of 3-foot-high stems clothed in dark green fern-like leaves. “Fern-like” because sweet fern is not, in fact, a fern but a member of the Myrtle family, along with bayberry.
So, yes Bill, I would like to grow sweet fern. But I have reservations about starting it from seed. The seed retains its viability for decades but sprouts only after jumping through a few hoops. Old seeds that have been lying dormant in the soil, perhaps for decades, sprout readily. Over time, their seed coats have been softened, chemical inhibitors have been leached away, and a spate of cool weather has reassured them that winter is past and it’s safe to sprout.
To get seeds to sprout in a more reasonable time, the seed coats need to be scarified, or made permeable. Nicking the seed with a wire cutter, rubbing it with sandpaper, or soaking it in sulfuric acid will do the trick but care must be taken to avoid damage. Mixing the seeds with moist potting soil  and refrigerating it for a month or two gives it the chilling required. After that, greatest success in germination comes with soaking the seed in a solution of gibberellic acid, a plant hormone.
You know what? I’m not going to bother with the seeds. Sweet fern is easily propagated from rhizome (root-like subterranean stem) cuttings — as long as I can find someone with sweet fern who will let me take a few cuttings. All that’s needed is to dig up some of the shallow, horizontal rhizomes, cut them into 2 to 4 inch lengths (the longer pieces for the thinner rhizomes), and set them 1/2” deep in a mix of equal parts peat and sand or peat and perlite or just vermiculite. New roots and shoots will develop and, this summer I could imagine that I am again walking along again in my white T-shirt with a pack on my back, canteen at my side, and Ked’s sneakers on my feet, wafting in that delicious aroma from along a sun-parched road.
Much, much easier to grow from seeds than sweet ferns are peas. If I can only get out in the garden to plant them! The time to sow peas around here is April 1st but — as I write this on March 19th — night temperatures are in the ‘teens and the garden sleeps beneath a blanket of snow.
(St. Patricks Day, contrary to popular notion, is not the right time to sow peas around here, or in many other places. It depends where you garden. That’s probably the right date for sowing peas in Ireland and in South Carolina, but it’s too late in Florida and too early here.)

The reason to rush peas into the ground as soon as possible is because the bearing plants don’t like hot weather. The earlier they get into the ground, the sooner they begin to bear. Once weather turns torrid, I pull the peas out and plant bush beans, fall cabbage, or some other vegetable where they stood.
The reason I don’t plant peas on St. Patrick’s day is because, first of all, it would be hard to plant in usually frozen ground. Also, peas don’t germinate until soil temperatures hit 40°F. If they just sit in cold, moist soil without sprouting, they’re apt to rot.
No need to twiddle my thumbs waiting for the soil to warm. Sprinkling some wood ash on the garden should hasten soil warming. The ashes hasten disappearance of the snowy blanket both from a “salt” effect (from the mineral salts, not sodium chloride, in the wood ash) and from their dark color.
Wood ash also helps nourish garden soils, making the soil less acidic and adding potassium and a slew of micronutrients. But restraint is needed to avoid too much of a good thing. Excess potassium or alkalinity ends up feeding plants an imbalance of nutrients.
The mere dusting I spread a few days ago began its work quickly, soon pitting the surface to look like a miniature range of jagged mountain peaks.

(Update: The snow, since I initially wrote the above, has thoroughly melted except in a few shaded areas. Nothing like a few 50 degree days to make spring’s presence finally known.