Tuesday, April 22, 2014

'Gardening in Miniature' Scales Design Principles Down to Size

Book Review
Courtesy Timber Press

Gardening in Miniature: Create Your Own Tiny Living World
By Janit Calro

Creating a tiny garden, also known as a fairy garden, has skyrocketed in popularity over the last year and a half. Calro's book is full of photographs to inspire and motivate you to create your own lilliputian world.

She emphasizes that scale is one of the most important elements when creating a garden scene. If the accessories are too large for the plants, or vice versa, the garden will not look balanced. She applies three main dollhouse miniature scales to her gardens: 1 inch (large), 1/2 inch (medium) or 1/4 inch (small). Giving examples in the book, she illustrates how each would look to help the reader decide which they prefer.

Calro also reminds the reader that design principles that would apply to (regular-size) gardening also apply in the tiny world.  She explains why it's important to keep in mind anchor points, layering, balance, form, texture, color and focal points. Sound complicated? Her easy writing style will give you the confidence to go forth and experiment, either in pots or outside in your main garden. Intermingled with her recommended plants are also examples of miniature gardens you can replicate on your own.

While reading (and skipping ahead to look at all the colorful photographs), I kept finding that I wanted elements that were featured in the book. Two Green Thumbs Miniature Garden Center is Calro's website and offers plenty of figurines, plants and accessories for sale. Now there's no excuse to experiment with miniature gardening.

Gardening in Miniature retails for $19.99 and is published by Timber Press.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Holy Hellebores

I can't get enough of hellebores. They are also called Christmas or Lenten Roses, since they are one of the earliest spring blooming flowers to appear in the garden.

I started out with one hellebore four years ago. The idea of an early blooming flower sounded good to me, so I planted my first one. I planted it in the back of my garden and honestly forgot about it. The first year it didn't bloom since it was establishing itself in the garden. I had even forgotten about it by the next spring and almost missed the flowers entirely. This is because the flowers of the hellebore dangle downward, like little bells. I did a double take and realized there were wine-colored flowers amid the foliage. I was immediately hooked for life. I needed more hellebores, and I needed them to be closer to the house so I could enjoy them from the windows.

I grow mine in part shade/part sun, but I've had luck with some hellebores with a bit more sun. They are pretty low maintenance when it comes to watering and care. They seem to enjoy organic matter added to the soil.

There are so many hybrid hellebores available at garden centers. The top photo, Sparkling Diamond, is an example. If you have a rose bowl, hellebores are perfect to cut and place inside to float on the water.

The leaves of hellebores are evergreen. In the late winter, I cut off the previous year's growth so that the new emerging flower stems will stand out. This year I have a kaleidoscope of colors ranging from the palest whites to pink to wine.

Hellebores are also welcome in my garden because the roots of hellebores are poisonous to voles. In the last year and a half, I have been battling voles in my garden. These little rodents look cute, but use underground tunnels to nibble on roots of plants. Since hellebores deter voles, I've been adding more of them to my garden. I specifically surround plants that have fallen victim to voles in the past with hellebores to help keep them away.

So far, it seems to be helping.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Soil Test is Key to Unlocking Great Lawns

Grass emerging from its winter slumber.

DURHAM, Conn. - The most important step to having a lush, green, organic lawn is to have your soil tested.

"You have to know things about your soil in order to take care of it," said Diane St. John during her talk on organic lawn care for the Coginchaug Area Transition lecture series. St. John is a NOFA Accredited Land Care Practitioner and retail manager at Natureworks in Northford, Conn.

Here's an example of the paperwork UCONN will
return after analyzing your soil. Click to enlarge.
Lawns like a neutral pH between 6.5 and 7. If the soil is not near that pH, the lawn will not do well no matter what you do, said St. John.

The University of Connecticut offers a basic soil test for $8 for homeowners. (I had several samples done back in 2011, as seen in the example to the right.) Using a small trowel or bulb planter, take samples of soil from 10 different spots in the sample area. Mix the samples in a container and then take a one cup sample to send out for analysis.

Once your test results return (the website estimates 7-10 days) you can use the information to determine what the soil needs for correcting.

For Connecticut gardeners, a grass blend which includes tall fescue grass will perform well. The best time to renovate the lawn is in the fall, but "spring is OK too, but you need to water more," she said.

Mowing the lawn on the high side (four inches) not only helps shade itself but also the weed seeds. St. John recommended leaving grass clippings on the lawn to be mulched back into the soil since the clippings are full of nitrogen. "It's like free fertilizer."

Reading the Weeds
You can also determine what is wrong with the lawn by "reading the weeds."

"Crabgrass usually grows where soil is really compacted," said St. John. "If you are living in a semi-new development (in the last 30 years), you probably have compacted soil." To help correct the problem, she suggests aerating the soil (using a pitchfork to poke holes in the ground helps with this).

"If you can ID the weeds in the lawn, you can see what the soil needs," said St. John. Here are five of the most common weeds found in lawns:
  • Crabgrass: low calcium, high potassium
  • Dandelions: low calcium, low pH, high potassium
  • Creeping Charlie: low nitrogen, high calcium, poor drainage
  • Plantain: poor drainage, very compacted soil
  • Wild Onions: low calcium, poor drainage
Clover, considered by some a weed, actually feeds the lawn by fixing nitrogen in its roots. "The part I really enjoy is the [white] clover and [the oxalis with] the little yellow flowers - I actually kind of like some of the weeds," she said.

St. John said pests can also be an indicator of what is wrong with the soil. "Patchy spots in the lawn mean roots are being eaten by grubs." The grubs are the larvae stage of Japanese beetles. To get rid of grubs in the soil (which also attract moles, who prefer to dine on them), St. John recommends applying beneficial nematodes to the lawn in late May/early June and again in mid-August/early September.

Life Without Pesticides 
Now is the time that pesticide warning flags begin to appear in neighborhoods to warn that spraying has occurred. St. John tells her children to stay off the lawns that have chemicals applied. "I worry about them walking on those lawns," she said.

The premise of organic gardening is to feed the soil, which will produce healthy plants. The soil is alive and filled with bacteria, fungus and protozoa, she said. "All these little guys you can't see [...] the whole web of life starts with life in your soil."

However, microscopic life is killed off by chemicals. If your lawn was previously treated with chemicals, St. John suggests replenishing life by applying a thin layer of compost to the top of the soil or by using a compost tea. (She recommends Organic Plant Magic, which is a dehydrated compost tea.) The transition from a chemical lawn to an organic lawn may look worse for a little while until the life kicks back in.

St. John originally started off with 1 acre of lawn at her home. Not only does St. John have chemical-free, gorgeous green grass that her children can play on, but she has removed 7,426 square feet of lawn from her original acre. She replaced the lawn with trees and plants to provide a place for wildlife to reside. Now instead of a monoculture of lawn, she has a more welcoming habitat.

"The lawn is part of your ecosystem and your yard as a whole," she said. "It's amazing when you stop using chemicals, what comes to your yard."

Friday, April 11, 2014

Floral Friday

I came home from work today and found blooming daffodils scattered throughout the front garden. Nothing makes me smile more than this flower.

What is blooming in your garden today?

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

April Garden Chores

A little late in posting this month's chores, since I've been trying to get to them myself.

Garden cleanup is in full swing. Here is a corner of my
front garden on my property line.
- I'm still cutting down old growth from last year and raking up leaves. (I'm a little behind on the leaves part because I never had time to rake this past fall.) Try not to walk on soil that is too wet because this can compact it.

- You can create new paths (and even garden beds) by layering cardboard on top of grass and then covering with mulch. I am in the process of collecting cardboard on my back patio. It looks strange, but it will have a home soon.

- Sow peas! I still haven't sown mine as I type this. The weather was too cold up until a few days ago. I plan to soak mine in water overnight (this helps germination) and then plant them in the soil. The time window for getting peas in the ground is small because they stop producing when the temperature gets too warm.

- Tomatoes and peppers, oh my! I'll be starting these seeds this week (week of April 6). I try not to start them too soon or they get leggy.

- Keep sowing seeds as the month goes on. I have all my seeds sorted into file folders so I know what to plant next. I've fallen behind with some, but I just keep on sowing.

- As soon as the buds begin to swell on the roses, I trim them. (I've also heard it's safe to prune with the forsythia blooms.) I trim out old, diseased or damaged canes and try to remove canes that will impede air flow.

- Prune out old, dead branches on honeysuckle vines. When done in spring, the plant sets new growth more easily.

- Prune clematis. Margaret Roach has advice here.

- Scatter bulb fertilizer around emerging bulbs. I like to use Espoma's Bulb Tone.

- Top dress roses and other perennials with compost. Top dress rhubarb with well-rotted manure.

Mason bees help pollinate in the early spring.
Fruit Trees
- I have better luck with my fruit trees if I purchase honey bee lures. These use a pheromone to attract bees to the flowers (especially important for my pear trees, which aren't as attractive as apple trees blossoms).  Last year I used Peaceful Valley's lures, and they worked really well! I also have a mason bee house to encourage these non-stinging bees to set up residence in my garden. I found a few on my crocus blossoms today.

Garden Structures
- Now's a good time to put in or repair fencing and trellises. The garden hasn't grown in yet and areas are more accessible because of it.

Most importantly, it's easy to get overwhelmed this month. Remember: slow and steady. If you do a little bit in the garden every day or every other day, you'll have less work to do when the season kicks into high gear.


Friday, April 4, 2014

Floral Friday

More flowers are starting to appear in the garden this week! This week's highlights include crocuses and the willow out back. What's blooming in your garden today?

Monday, March 31, 2014

Maple Season is Short and Sweet for Sugarhouse

Tony Denning, owner of Maple Leaf Farm, empties maple sap into the
metal bin in the pump house at his Plainfield sugarbush.
CANTERBURY, Conn. - After checking the sugarbush* on a partly sunny, 36 degree day, Tony Denning, owner of Maple Leaf Farm, drove past a small grocery store on his way back home.

"They have my syrup on the shelf next to Log Cabin in there," he told me. "Do you know what's in Log Cabin?"

I guessed corn syrup, the most overused substitute for sugar mass retailers can find.

"Let's go find out," Denning said, and he pulled his truck into the parking lot. Sure enough, the Log Cabin bottle was right next to the quart from Maple Leaf Farm.  Coyly coined "table syrup," the ingredients list does not include corn syrup as I suspected, but brown rice syrup. Denning's quart is nothing short of the real thing: 100 percent pure maple syrup.

The "sugaring season" is a short one, and maple syrup producers like Denning need to make the most of a limited time window - typically six weeks before rising spring temperatures end the season. "Maple syrup production [in Connecticut] is so under done," he said. He's right. Connecticut made up only 1 percent of the entire maple production in 2013, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, and it's not due to the lack of trees.

In addition, maple syrup producers are a close-knit community with a low profile. "A lot of people don't even realize how many sugar houses there are that are open to the public," he said. (There are 30 listed in the 2014 Guide to Connecticut Sugarhouses, available online here.)

Short season
For maple syrup production, the trees need temperatures in the low 20s at night and 45 degrees Fahrenheit during the day to help the sap flow.

"You want the trees to freeze all night. Not for an hour or two in the morning - that doesn't cut it," he said.

In the past five years, maple syrup production at Maple Leaf Farm has started as early as Jan. 6 and as late as Feb. 14. "Last year was better sugar content. Everything came off right last year," Denning said.

Denning stands next to a maple tree tapped into
the vacuum pump system at his Plainfield
sugarbush location (10 acres).
This year, the season didn't begin until Feb. 21 for Denning. This delay in the start of the season was thanks to the extreme cold temperatures - known as the "polar vortex" - Connecticut experienced this year. "We've only had two really good runs this year," he said. "This year we are just throwing the rulebook out - nothing is happening the way it should be happening. This is the latest I've ever started in the season. [And] I've never seen it run past the first week of April."

When trees are originally tapped, the sap runs clear, resulting in lighter colored maple syrup. As the season continues, the sap takes on more color. "The warmer the temperature is, the darker it usually is," he said. "[But] this year we didn't make any light syrup."

At Maple Leaf Farm, maple syrup is created with a machine that uses reverse osmosis to separate the water from the sap. It is then funneled into an evaporator and heated to a temperature between 219 and 223 degrees Fahrenheit. "I like my syrup thick," he said as he offered me a shot of maple syrup. I happily obliged - it was thick and sweet. "Everybody wants dark syrup," he said. "The darker the syrup, the more flavor. The lighter the syrup the lighter the flavor."

Dark syrup also has more beneficial properties than light syrup. Less than five years ago, a University of Rhode Island scientist discovered that pure maple syrup from Canada contained 54 beneficial properties. According to URI, "several of these anti-oxidant compounds newly identified in maple syrup are also reported to have anti-cancer, anti-bacterial and anti-diabetic properties."

"It's far more beneficial than using cane sugar or corn syrup," said Denning. "I have maple syrup every day." Besides the usual pancake topping, maple butter, maple candy and maple sugar that come to mind, Denning said kids can put it in milk to make maple milk. For the adults, "put maple syrup in your coffee instead of sugar." (Maple syrup can be substituted for white sugar in cooking, with 1 cup maple syrup for 1 cup of white sugar. The liquid in the recipe should be reduced by 3 tablespoons for each cup of syrup used. Source: Cornell University.)

Maple syrup inventory at Maple Leaf Farm in Canterbury, Conn.
Changing grades
The USDA grading system that Connecticut uses is classified into Grade A light amber, medium amber and dark amber. There is also Grade B and commercial grade, which is darker than Grade B. Now the system is changing.

A maple tree is tapped to the vacuum
pump system.
Denning said the labeling changes are letting maple syrup producers sell shades of syrup that are a little darker than before. By 2015 there will no longer be a Grade B category. The new grades will be Grade A "golden," "amber," "dark" and "very dark." (Vermont has already implemented the new grading labels this year.)

Maple syrup is produced throughout Canada (mainly Quebec) and the northeast portion of the United States.  According to Cornell University, "syrup flavor is affected by soil type, tree genetics, weather conditions during the maple season, time during the season when the sap is collected and processing technique." 

In this manner, maple syrup is similar to wine due the variations of local flavor. (Perhaps Connecticut should consider creating a Connecticut Maple Trail to accompany the Connecticut Wine Trail.)

Modern improvements in gathering sap
Denning said he likes the solitude of the woods, which is a good thing because the sugarbush requires constant maintenance. "I do it all myself, " he said. "If it was easy, everybody would be doing it."

Five years ago, Denning started tapping trees for Maple Leaf Farm. The following year he switched to a vacuum pump system to collect the sap. Each tree is tapped and connected with tubing. The tree's individual tubing is hooked up to the main vacuum line. "With a vacuum system you bring all the sap to where you want it," he said.

Sap inside the lines of the vacuum
pump system.
Between his three sugarbush locations spread over 20 acres, he has 2,000 taps on the vacuum system. On site, all the sap from six acres of trees comes to the sugar house, which he built himself. The other two locations have a pump house set up with tanks to collect the sap.

The trees need to be tended to daily. Lines in the vacuum system can be nibbled on by squirrels. They aren't the only animals with a sweet tooth. Raccoons, opossums and even young coyotes chew on plastic tubing used in the vacuum system "You know it's a coyote pup [when] it's ripped right to the ground and chewed on," he said. Deer, which also frequent the woods, leave the lines alone.

"The bigger the trees are the longer it takes them to thaw out," said Denning. Tapping the trees for the sap does not hurt the tree. When tapping a tree, the diameter of the tree trunk determines how many taps can be used. (Up to 18 inches in diameter, 1 tap; 18 inches to 2 1/2 feet, 2 taps; 3 feet or larger, 3 taps.) Any type of maple tree can be tapped, not just sugar maples, although the sugar maple is the most popular due to its high sugar content.

"They want to go," he said, referring to the sap in the trees. "They want to run."

Maple Leaf Farm is open Monday through Friday, 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Visitors can watch maple syrup being made, usually between January and March. In the off season, the farm sells homegrown canned goods, wreaths and homemade pies to order by Denning's wife, Lynne. Organic eggs and wood are also for sale. 

* A maple grove that is tapped is called a sugarbush.