On the Eve of December

Thanksgiving celebrations are done, the wreath has been made and cold raw weather has settled in.

The bird feeders have been busy this past week except for one afternoon when a sharp-shinned hawk visited.

And the cats spend most of their days now in a heap on the end of the couch.


Bringing the Garden Indoors

In more late Augusts than I care to remember I've brought the garden indoors for the winter. I've wrestled enormous beefsteak begonias to get them to part with a division, potted up rosemary layerings snipped from parent plants, rooted geranium cuttings (instead of jamming big plants into small pots, 1970s Victory Garden host Jim Crockett's words), combined peculiar pairings of succulents and cacti into shallow clay pots (Agave Mr. Ripple meet cactus Fairy Castle), uprooted and hauled in lush bananas, plucked baby elephant ears pups, took fast-rooting cuttings like Persian Shield, coleus and begonias for the propagator.

The only pampering this collection of "houseplants" gets is a couple of jury-rigged plant lights (shop lights from my husband's workshop in the basement) and one or two plastic saucers of water and stones for a little extra humidity which don't do much in our drafty Connecticut Victorian. I water once or twice a week depending on how much sun comes in the south facing windows and I feed them once a month if I remember.

With little consistency in temperature from one room to the next, most of them do tolerably well in the cooler indoor climate though. The camellias are budded and ready to burst. The oleander, lavender and bay laurel are hanging in there. Leaves picked from the catnip stuck out of paw's reach between ivies and a mandevilla are keeping the six cats amused. Three woody brugmansia cuttings are leafing out. The low maintenance Ifafa lily will be blooming shortly. Three bamboos are sending up new shoots. And even the 7+ foot banana sports glossy gray-green leaves.

As much as my family has groaned over the years about the house becoming a jungle each fall, one daughter finally admitted that she loved the plants closing in the house at the closing in of the year. And the other daughter made me promise as she was getting in the car to head back to school late August that the Dwarf Cavendish banana in the side yard would be brought indoors. Or it would have to be crammed into the packed car right then and there to go live with her in the dorm.


Coldframe/Hoop House Musings

I've been chronicling the coldframe project every few days now on my camera. And each time I check in on things one more plant ends up getting tucked inside. Variegated Vinca major for containers next spring, 2 of them, went in on the 14th. Yesterday an ornamental cabbage was added. This has to stop soon.

I've also been talking further with my brother about his hoop house in Maine as my coldframe collection of plants continues to grow. He purchased his Hoop House Greenhouse Kit from Hoop House Stuctures http://www.hoophouse.com/. He remarked that, "the service was terrific and they were very responsive, friendly, and good at answering questions." Quite an endorsement.

Ralph Bartlett of Hoop House Structures provides a personalized approach offering to accommodate special requests such as adding a few inches in length to a greenhouse. This low-tech business is located in Mashpee, MA on Cape Cod just over a three-hour drive from where I live.

When I contacted him his reply included a brief statement about finding this blog "of interest". That's a good thing since I certainly find his Hoop House Greenhouse Kits of interest too.


Fall Chrysanthemum Show at Smith College

What a final hurrah of color we saw Saturday at the Fall Chrysanthemum Show at the Botanic Garden of Smith College in Northampton, MA http://www.smith.edu/garden/Conservatory/mum-show.html. On a rainy day that ushered in a severe cold front including tornado watches, we stepped into the Lyman Conservatory and drank in towers and cascades of color. Although a bit late with some blossoms fading, it was a real treat. We enjoyed voting for our favorite hybrids resulting from crosses made by horticulture students. The Fall Chrysanthemum Show has been celebrated at Smith College for nearly a century. Pictures were taken by my daughter on her Sony Ericsson phone since this was an impromptu visit and I didn't have my camera along.


Hydroponic Tulips

Rooting bulbs in the refrigerator . . . has worked well for me, though rather messily, and I feel you need a second refrigerator.
~ Thalassa Cruso, Making Things Grow: A Practical Guide for the Indoor Gardener

Thalassa Cruso was known as the Julia Child of horticulture. Her ascerbic wit and unpredictable manner made her PBS show Making Things Grow a hit within seven months after it went on the air. The American Botanical Council referred to her as an unofficial custodian of the public horticultural trust.

So what would Thalassa have to say about refrigerator rooting tulips for hydroponic production? She'd be ecstatic!

According to the 2002 issue of the horticultural trade magazine Flower Tech, the success of hydroponic production of tulips in the Netherlands has gone through the roof. From virtually nil in 1997 to 40% in 2001, it was predicted at that time that hydroponic production of tulips would rise to 90% by last year.

So having dinner with a friend of mine last night we came up with our own version of refrigerator rooting tulips for hydroponic production.

  1. I purchased 'Apricot Beauty' and 'Queen of Night" on sale at our local home store since I heard these varieties worked well for forcing. Some cultivars are not suitable for hydroponic production though. Whether either of these is on the list I'm not sure. Time will tell.

  2. I purchased eggs in a clear plastic egg carton, putting the eggs in an empty cardboard carton I had sitting around. Special bulb holders called Hydro Trays have been developed for use in the Netherlands that have projections or pins to hold the bulbs in place in the trays. This plastic egg carton seemed a good substitute for the Hydro Trays.

  3. I put a little pea gravel in the base of each cell in the egg carton to hold the bulbs up off the bottom surface. Then I put 12 bulbs on top of the pea gravel and set them in the back of the refrigerator (away from fruit) to break dormancy. ~A pan of bulbs alongside peas and meat has, in some way, a curious psychological impact. Thalassa Cruso
  4. Water will be added in a few days and the bulbs will remain in the refrigerator until they produce roots of about 1 1/2 " long. The roots only need to be long enough to take up water. This process will take about 3 weeks, maybe less.

  5. At this point the bulbs will be brought out of the refrigerator and transferred to decorative glass vases and propped up with river rock. The vases will be filled with water up to the roots and placed in a warm location.

In 1968 Time magazine said Thalassa could make the most mundane chores seem like "an adventure in the bush country". Like Thalassa and my friend Alice T.A. Quackenbush, I garden for the adventure of it. We three are cut from the same gardening cloth. So whether or not I'll be joining Dutch cultivators in celebrating hydroponic tulips remains to be seen. It's the adventure I'm after.


Minding the Cold Frame

The thermometer says 46 degrees but it feels more like 40. Overcast and gray, the skies have been looking like November lately. We've enjoyed a mild fall but the wind out there today means business. I think we've run the course of our luck on warm weather.

I've been training myself to mind the cold frame over the past 10 days. Outside in slippers and pjs at dawn or dusk more than once to prop open or close the lid depending on conditions. Last night it got down to the mid 30s. I covered the cold frame with a blanket yesterday evening and found things comfortable inside this morning with a little condensation collected on the top and sides. Tonight it's heading down into the 20s so we'll see how things fare in the morning. I'm curious how the cluster of 10-day old calendula seedlings will do. They're hardy right now and growing like weeds.

We have indoor/outdoor thermometers all over the house but do you think there'd be an intact working one in the bunch? The outdoor sensors seem to spring legs and walk. Pursuit of one to put in the cold frame has reduced itself to the quest of the Holy Grail at this point.


Leek Tart

For the second consecutive Saturday night we've savored on leeks from the garden. Found an excellent recipe that uses a little bacon, fresh garlic, gruyere, parmesan, and a pinch of nutmeg along with eight leeks, yes eight. Not finding it in myself to wipe out the last of this crop quite yet, I followed the advice of a good friend and used a couple small Spanish onions and just five of the remaining leeks. Pulled them out this afternoon in the mild rain, they smelled so good. The onion substitution worked well. Great texture and even better taste. Shared it with my parents tonight and enjoyed it with red leaf lettuce and grape tomatoes. I was planning on getting a picture of the whole tart but it disappeared too quickly. This is all that was left after nibbling our way through kitchen clean up. A real winner.


What's All the Hoopla?

I just found out last week what my brother in Maine used his 2008 economic stimulus tax rebate check for. Yes, a hoop house greenhouse kit. I guess I really wasn't too surprised since his work with home garden hoop houses had been going on for well over a year now. Last October he built himself an 8' x 5' cloche-type hoop house out of pvc conduit pipes, rebar pipes and 4 mil plastic polyethylene sheeting. He was able to keep his Swiss chard going as well as the thyme, tarragon, sage, and parsley. He also grew lettuce and spinach that germinated for him by the end of October.

And then I heard all about his seed starting plans for the hoop house in January. I even salvaged a number of 4" pots with heavy duty plastic fitted trays from my parents' house who were clearing things out. These trays would make it easy for sliding in and out of the hoop house for watering I told him.

So when I heard about his purchase - the "large size" model - and plants he was wintering over, the parsley, three varieties of sage (one of them Salvia elegans), thyme, tarragon, winter savory and a rosemary, I began to work on plans of my own.

It started out simply enough when I emailed my brother on Saturday. "I have a beautiful purple sage that you've got me thinking about. Will bring up the cold frame tomorrow and put it in there. "

My husband built the 4' x 2' cold frame for me in the fall of 2004. Usually we would haul it up early spring in preparation of sowing sweet peas in March. But this year I decided I needed to winter over that purple sage. And so much for waiting until the next day. I pulled my husband away from his Saturday afternoon college football game and out we went.

After setting it up on the raised bed outside the back door in went the purple sage, then parsley, chives, oregano and thyme. I found a couple calendula seedlings when digging the parsley that joined the herbs in the cold frame and scattered some of the seed in there for good measure. And then I noticed the salvias - greggi and blepharophylla - still holding their own despite the killing frosts we'd had last week. In they went too. I finally made myself stop when dusk arrived. Dirty, tired but content I sent myself to the showers.

I got up early the next morning and checked on things in the cold frame. All was well. But then I took a walk around the yard looking at the frost-bitten gardens and noticed how silver-blue glorious the Aeonium arborens looked in the morning light. They wouldn't make it past the end of this month I was certain. And the Provence Lavender in its clay container still fuzzy gray and looking as if it was mid-summer. Sure enough they found room in the cold frame too.

What had possessed me to practice a round of extreme intensive gardening in a 2' x 4' enclosed space in early November? After a moment of careful self-introspection I was able to identify two sources responsible for my behavior. Alice T.A. Quackenbush's "sport" of gardening fueled by pure unbridled hoop house envy.


I missed the goldfinches late summer in the sunflowers and yellow Tithonia. The chickadees were all over them but no goldfinches. No sweet hum of their "per-chic-o-ree" song, a sure sign of summer's waning.

This morning I happened to look out back to the bare stalk remains on the hillside and noticed the stems of a stand of Echinacea 'White Swan' swaying madly back and forth. I thought there was a large animal at the base of the plants but on closer inspection I noticed the seed heads were inundated with a flock of goldfinches. I opened the window to the cold chill of 34 degrees and in came their joyful humming up off the hill and into the house. I looked to the other stands of Echinaceas and found they were full of goldfinches too. It was a rousing morning chorus of goldfinch song.

I watched them cruise around the yard until mid-morning, lighting alongside chickadees on the hanging tray feeder and scratching for seed in the leaves below. Then I lost track of them.

I'll look for them tomorrow and enjoy their feasting on the same flowers I feasted on all summer - a visual feast of pure whites, magenta roses and golden honey yellows.


November Harvest

Saturday night dinner - sauteed chicken with leeks. Delicious! Started growing leeks in our first garden back in 1986. Over 20 years later I planted them this spring in a raised bed for the first time since and what a treat. Pulled out three for tonight's dinner. I love their mild sweet scent.

Dinner: Sauteed boneless chicken breasts in olive oil and a pat of butter for 10 - 15 minutes. Seasoned with salt and freshly ground pepper and removed them from the pan to a warm plate in the oven. Put the leeks in the pan with another pat of butter and sauteed them for 3 to 4 minutes - fresh and tender they cook up quickly. Next I added a little Pinot Grigio to deglaze the pan and, yes, one more small pat of butter to bring on the sauce. Returned the chicken to the pan to get the flavors flowing for a couple minutes then served up the chicken and leeks alongside a crispy piece of ciabatta and some mesclun. Can't beat it.

I'm planning to extend the harvest into winter by mulching heavily and digging these mild members of the onion family as needed. Won't wait another 20+ years to grow them again. With their savory flavor fresh in mind and the anticipation of browsing through seed catalogs this winter, I'll be checking out early varieties promising the added ease of direct sowing in May.