Thursday, November 12, 2009

Flowers and bulbs for winter and early spring

I haven't reviewed the history recently, but as I remember, bulbs were brought from the Middle East to Europe in the early 1600's and became wildly popular. The prices of tulip bulbs skyrocketed in the "tulip craze." However, in 1632 there were enough for all, and the prices crashed, losing many a fortune.
Since then those of us who experience winter can enjoy flowers all year round. I do, and some of you have asked for a more detailed description of what I do. First I buy bulbs, and I believe you still can from garden centers near here. If my act is together, I buy them from Fedco before their August deadline. They are much cheaper, but inconvenient and their catalog is black and white. If I miss that, Dutch Gardens takes orders much later. I've been completely satisfied with the quality of bulbs from both, and I haven't heard any bad reports from local garden centers.
The first bulbs to bloom are "paperwhites," a daffodil that grows in water. I have two ancient low glass vases in which I always keep gravel to hold the paperwhite bulbs. One on this year's ten began blossoming two weeks ago, which is a delightful addition to my kitchen, but they usually begin around Thanksgiving and continue through December, a lovely addition to a bouquet of holly.

All other bulbs for winter go into a pot with the homemade potting soil that I have described before. The others go into the ground before it freezes, but after the annuals have been killed off in the first frost (last Friday). Some of these "naturalize," which is a jargon word meaning that they will reproduce in situ and you don't have to replace them. Others must be replaced each year if you are to enjoy them in the early spring. All the bulbs for sale can go into our ground, but only some, they say, can be "forced," the word for growing them indoors in winter.
My house was built in 1925 and has a cold cellar, which is colder than the rest of the house but warmer than outside. This is what the bulbs need. In Florida people who want tulips dig theirs up each fall and put them in the refrigerator for winter because they don't perform if they have only Florida's "warm" winter weather. My daughter in MA puts them in the back of her attached garage, which seems to work. Most cellars in Montclair have a colder spot that would do.
The recommended crocus for forcing is "flower record," a beautiful purple crocus to enjoy in January. Tete-a-tete daffodils are a miniature daffodil that blooms shortly thereafter. Then delft hyacinths and many daffodils, including King Arthur, bloom. The last forced bulbs that I enjoy are triumph tulips. In truth, I have not tried many other bulbs since these bring me such pleasure. By the time the triumphs are finished indoors, I have a mass of daffodils at the back of my property, planted from bulbs of previous year that I can pick abundantly.
When I began gardening, I remembered Shakespeare's oft-used phrase, "sweet columbine." He wrote around 1600 in England, and I now suspect that columbine was the first flower he saw after a flower-less winter. No wonder it seemed so sweet! It still is, but it is just one more flower in my year-round supply.
Flowers are not as essential for life as vegetables, but if you like them, they are worth cultivating. European and North American flower shops are importing flowers from tropical regions, and their cultivation is doing some terrible damage to previously beautiful places. Furthermore, we computed in my math class last month that at present rates, the known supply of petroleum will be gone in 38 years. That will put a real crimp in transporting flowers (which also need refrigeration,
as well as transport fuel), and we might as well learn to grow them locally. Of course, my bulbs come from Holland, but they are much easier to transport than fragile flowers, and if Holland can grow bulbs, so can New Jersey, given an incentive.
Meanwhile, I enjoy watching the bulbs grow under my care. In the cellar I water all the pots (24 of them now!) once a week or so. When the plants grow to 2" high, I bring them to my greenhouse window (any old window will do), and start watering them (almost) every day. I can put them in a tray of water if I go away for a week or less in January, and they seem happy there. This year I also brought in a nasturtium and two impatiens plants that seem to be thriving in my greenhouse window, but it's probably too late for you to do that. However, life is surprising. My impatiens next to the road all crumbled last Friday, but those in the corner between the house and the chimney have happy blossoms today!


P.S. Another surprise is that I am still harvesting raspberries, but the kiwi vine became totally bare in Friday's frost.

Read More......

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

After frost

Last Friday night was one of the most emphatic "first frosts" that I can remember. Thursday "they" predicted frost Friday night. Friday the summer garden was there. Saturday black was the dominant color. Of course, we are all beginning gardeners in that we are all still learning and surprised. Overnight the tomato, eggplant, and zinnia plants went black, as expected. The pepper plants went limp, despite their burlap coverings, as did the nasturtiums (so beautiful the previous day!) and the Malabar spinach.
The pak choi, chinese cabbage, arugula, lettuce, carrots, parsnips, celery and parsley seem to revel in their newfound freedom, intense green amid the dead. I don't remember how beautiful the alyssm (sp?) looked after frost. Of course, I never allowed so many plants to live until I dug up this spring the lawn between the street and sidewalk. They are in beautiful contrast to what I called a mystery plant this spring, but seems to be "swan's neck." It has brilliant red leaves now in beautiful contrast to the white alyssm. Down the side of the property are chrysanthemums. Right now the front lawn is raked and mowed, and it's worth enjoying if you are nearby. Remember that I haven't used any poisons, chemicals, power machinery, or watered mylawn in the past 34 years. There are more important goals in life than a pretty front lawn, but those who think that it requires life-killing practices should
look at 56 Gordonhurst Avenue now.

Inside I have washed the peppers I picked last Friday, saved some for fresh salads, and chopped and froze the rest. We're enjoying eggplant parmesan M-W-F this week, as I use up the ones I picked Friday. Unlike peppers, even the very little eggplants taste just fine. I peel and slice eggplants, dip them in an egg-and-milk mixture, and then in flavored bread crumbs, and saut them in olive oil. Then in a casserole, I alternate a layer of eggplant, one of grated mozzarella cheese, and one of homemade
tomato sauce. Yum!
The many picked tomatoes do not need any preservation or refrigeration. The greenest I have layered in black-and-white newspaper in boxes and put in the cold cellar. Maybe they will last for weeks. Many grace my counters. This way I can keep an eye on them as they ripen or rot. As they ripen, I use them in salads. This year for the first time I saw some AFTER the frost that seemed worth picking. They don't seem to have rotted yet on my counter, so maybe the fruit survived what killed the rest of the plant.
One of you asked how much I eat tomatoes. We started with the little ones late this past June, and will have supersteaks for, I think, weeks yet. During those months homegrown tomatoes were always part of our dinners. I like this lifestyle! Unlike some other veggies, tomatoes are easy to grow in this climate, and homegrown are the best by far.
Soon I will begin sowing winter rye where crops have died, but first I have to remove those crops, which is no small task. Meanwhile, Fred brings home about a hundred bag of others' leaves, and I move them to the back yard for storage. "Gardening" continues!


Read More......

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Frost tomorrow night, two mistakes

I'm quite sure now that I have heard TWO warnings that frost may hit our region tomorrow (Friday) night. Gardeners alert! Suggestions below.
Last evening I made two mistakes that may interest this list. One was that I "heard" at the 5:00 PM news that there would be a low of 33 degrees. I spent the next half hour doing what I describe below, only to hear a "low of 43 degrees" at the 5:30 news. I guess I heard wrong at 5:00.
About the same time Anita knocked at our door and told Fred that she had seen bales of straw on Broad Street near the Shoprite. He grabbed a shopping list and took off while I was frantic in the back yard. When he came back and told me he had brought home "a bale" of straw, I wasn't as grateful as I might have been. I reminded him that last year I used two bales. Obligingly, later in the evening he brought home another.
When I saw the bales this morning, I saw I had made mistake #2.

These bales are three times the size of any I've seen before! One of them covered all my strawberries more deeply today than they have ever been covered before.
Anyone want a big bale of straw? If so, we'll put it out for you. It will spend the night in our garage where it will stay dry. A soaked bale of that size could break a human back.
I've heard about "production" (actually of consumption) of a reported number of barrels of oil so much, that I assume "barrels" is a constant volume. Apparently bales of straw are not. Oh, well.
We all make mistakes. I tell my students that often. Internalizing it is important, I believe, for enjoying mathematics -- and accepting mistakes is not easy in their test-driven lives.
Back to my other mistake last evening. My basil and Malabar spinach had already succumbed to the cold, so I ran around tending to the peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes. Since the eggplants and tomatoes have been abundant this year and I have already frozen lots of them, I first concentrated on the peppers. I picked the large ones (some of which were turning reddish!) and covered those not ready to eat with burlap. I will cut up and freeze those that I don't think we can eat "fresh," having been stored in the refrigerator.
I then harvested enough eggplant for tomorrow's dinner and Monday's, and perhaps a few more. I wonder whether they can be eaten after spending a night frozen. I have tonight to decide whether I'll pick all the rest tomorrow -- and all day to do it if I decide to do so.
Earlier yesterday I looked at my brown tomato PLANTS, and thought that the tomatoes would be just as healthy inside -- and less vulnerable. So I had started picking during the day. I picked more in the evening, and will pick more tomorrow. I have put green ones in a box, separating them all with black and white newspaper. It's been years since I've had enough late tomatoes to hope some will still be ripening during the holidays, and I hadn't realized how much color has taken over newspapers since. I suspect that color wrappings for tomatoes is less healthy than black and white, so we've scrounged around for the old-fashioned type. The ones that have turned slightly red are abundant on my kitchen counter.
I picked a bouquet of annual flowers this afternoon, and will pick another tomorrow. I'm happy to report my first bulb is blooming, so we don't anticipate the end of flowers for the winter. But that's the topic of another email (as one of you requested)!


Read More......

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Kiwi, Malabar, leaves, straw?

It's been week of surprises. The nicest was the discovery of an enormous crop of Arctic kiwi. They are scheduled to ripen in "late October." Last year they were later (which is nice!) and more abundant than I had ever had before. I harvested dozens of little fuzz-free, pit-free fruit that look like olives but taste and look inside like the kiwi you buy in the store. The disappointment was that, although the
books said they keep in the refrigerator for the winter, they developed unappetizing fuzz before too long.
This year there are hundreds! They are yummy, and I don't want them to develop fuzz. I soon found it is possible to eat too many in one day, so I now have the pleasant project of giving them away while they are still good. Of course, I am trying to balance my generosity with my own desire to eat them as long as possible myself with comfort. Is that a parable for the challenge of life? Anyway, it's fun to watch people's eyes pop.

I bought them mail order from Gurney's, two little plants less than 6" tall. One was tied in a pink ribbon and the other had a blue ribbon. The hard part of raising kiwi is constructing a sturdy enough frame for the weight of their vines. We were reminded of Biblical times. Each February I cut the vines that bore this year, and keep as much as I can of the other new vines. There isn't too much competition from other garden activities in February.

The big disappointment of the week is not finding straw after Halloween on curbs. Any suggestions of where we can scavenge it? Our strawberries have been much better since they spent their winters covered by straw. Fred suggested today maybe we could buy straw. What a profligate idea!
We are collecting leaves without trouble this week. We have to go to Glen Ridge for leaves in plastic bags, which are needed to cover carrots, parsnips, and Jerusalem artichokes so we can harvest them all winter. Paper bags, abundant now in Montclair and Bloomfield, are adequate for mulching and composting, although somewhat less convenient. They are MUCH better for the commercial composters who receive the Montclair leaves, so we understand why the cherished plastic bags are so
hard to find.
One of you asked if I shred leaves. No, they are fine "as is." Oak leaves compost less quickly than the others and so should be avoided by beginners if possible, but I don't mind them any more.

Someone who picked up some Malabar seeds from the left of my front porch wondered what you do with them. I just let them dry with no particular technique except removing them from the stems. Then I put them in potting soil next February or March. They take about 3 weeks to germinate and another 3 or more weeks to grow beyond an inch high. I suspect they are rare because they tax American ability to endure delayed gratification.
But they surely are good from mid-summer until the first cold. Mine died last week (in the sense of developing spots I don't want to eat), but this week they have started new, pretty leaves that are growing at a remarkable rate. We may even eat another fresh meal from them -- despite the fact that the moon is full this week. The hard part of Malabar is being sure they have a fence or trellis to climb when they take off. My peas leave the perfect fence when they die in mid-July, but there are many ways to provide for peas and Malabar. They won't knock over your trellis
as my kiwi vines did the first one I bought for them. (It was a gentle breeze and then "crack!" The $100 trellis was broken on the ground.)
There are plenty more Malabar seeds to give away. If you plan to come, let me know and I'll put still more to the left of my front door. Be sure to bring a plastic bag or baggie because they have a red "dye" that you don't want to get on your fingers or upholstery.


Read More......