houseplant1I’m probably the only person in the world that likes New Year’s resolutions.  Maybe I am a masochist, but after a month of full-on gluttony and good cheer brought by the holidays, I think it’s healthy to take a step back and look at my shortcomings over the past year and consider ways that I can improve.  I try to avoid the resolution pitfalls of setting totally unrealistic goals like “exercise” or “floss more.” Rather, I prefer to find modest, attainable milestones that I might actually accomplish.  This year, my resolutions include:

1. Find a way to not hate winter so much
2. Get my Rural Intelligence articles in on time
3. Stop pretending to like kale
4. Have more indoor plants and keep them alive

I’m hoping that if I can accomplish #4 that it might help me with #1.  I’m terrible with houseplants.  Despite my (modest) successes outdoors, I’m just not talented with indoor gardening. Part of the problem is that I set myself up for failure by buying plants that take a lot of monitoring, care and have very specific needs that aren’t suited to every indoor environment. To rectify this problem I’ve been doing a lot of research on plants that are easy to take care of, are hardy and are able to be grown by just about anyone in any household environment.hp2

Air plants, or Tillandsia fit into these parameters perfectly.  Tillandsia is a type of bromeliad that gets all of the nutrients and water that they need by absorbing it through their leaves.  The plants do have a root system, but it is designed more to attach itself to other plants, rocks trees or the ground rather than a vehicle for food – meaning that they don’t need to be grown in soil.  This not only makes the plant easy to care for, but also allows you to grow the plant in very nontraditional and unique ways.

Take for example the wreath shown here that I recently purchased at this year’s Holiday Marketplace at the Berkshire Botanical Garden.  Made of the Tillandsia variety Tillandsia Abdita, the plants have been “sewn” onto a grapevine wreath frame with wire.  I’m currently using it as a centerpiece on my dining room table, but will hang it in my bathroom window after the holidays where it will be exposed to humidity from my morning shower everyday.  Once a week I place the wreath (face down) in my sink filled with two inches of water and let it soak for half an hour after which I shake it to remove any excess water.  That’s all it needs!

hp3Soaking is a great way to make sure that the plants are getting their fill of water, but you can also mist air plants regularly (at least three times a week) using a spray bottle.  Excess water on the plant can get stuck under leaves and lead to rot, so make sure that if you are soaking the plant, you shake it out properly.  You’ll also want to make sure that Tillandisa is in a place with well circulated air flow and in a room that doesn’t get below 50 degrees.  It needs access to sun, but when the weather turns warm, make sure that the light is indirect.  Remember, these plants are used to growing on other plants and are accustom to shade and partial sun.

Growing air plants is more than just a horticultural endeavor.  Their growth habits and easy-to-care-for nature make them ideal for terrariums and design projects like the hanging terrariums and mini garden pictured here.  With over 540 varieties of this plant to choose from, you have a lot of options.

I’m hoping that this is my “gateway” houseplant that is going to help make the winter of 2014 a greener, more enjoyable place.  If you have any houseplants that you swear by, let me know by emailing me at

amaryllis_dancing_queenThanksgiving is next week and I am hosting my better half’s family. This is the third year in a row that they’ve come up for the holiday and, for better or worse, it’s turning into a tradition. Matt’s family is Jewish, so dividing up the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays was a pretty easy negotiation. Honestly, I don’t mind hosting. I enjoy cooking, and having it take place at my house allows me to control the menu, which is basically what my mother has been making for as many Thanksgivings as I can remember. (Jewish readers know that Hanukkah falls over Thanksgiving this year, and despite my father in-law’s repeated suggestion, I am not making a Manischewitz-braised turkey.) If I can’t spend Thanksgiving with my mom, then I am at the very least going to spend it with her recipes.

If you’re a guest at someone’s table, you’re probably going to want to bring something. Dessert? Wine? A drunk uncle? It’s not always easy trying to decide. Like it or not, Thanksgiving kicks off the “season of giving” and if you’re in need of a great gift idea, or simply something to bring as a gift for your host, then let me offer a suggestion:  Amaryllis.

While I know this is not a groundbreaking idea, I do think it’s one that is often cast aside as unoriginal. To me, this is still the perfect gift. It’s practically a care-free houseplant that is all but guaranteed to bloom, regardless of your capabilities of keeping indoor plants alive, and the show it puts on is spectacular. It is also well timed. Give someone an amaryllis at Thanksgiving, for example, and it should be in bloom just in time for the solstice. Give it at Christmas and it will be blooming as the worst of winter starts to rear its ugly head, when we need a burst of spring color the most. Pair it with a unique pot for planting and you’ve made it an even nicer gift.Amaryllis_Picotee2_(2)

You can find these bulbs just about anywhere—at the grocery store, the hardware store, even the drugstore. These types of vendors will usually sell the big, red showy flowers that we’ve all come to associate with this plant. However, if you dig a little deeper, you can find some really amazing varieties that are truly unique, such as the Amaryllis Chico (above right) or Amaryllis Picotee (below left). Mail order catalogs and nurseries will usually roll out new models each year, so the selection is always growing. I like to find these varieties, pot them, and then give them as gifts without description. It makes for quite the nice surprise when they bloom, as it’s not often what people are expecting.

Whether you’re giving an amaryllis as a gift or lucky enough to have received one, here is what you should do to take care of it: If you are given a bare bulb, find a pot that will fit the bulb comfortably both in width and depth. Fill the pot half way with a well-draining potting mix. Make sure to put something underneath the pot to catch water that may drain from the bottom. Wet the soil in the bottom of the pot and then place the amaryllis bulb on top. Fill in around the bulb with soil until only the top 1/3 of the bulb is showing above the soil, leaving about a half an inch or so from the top of the pot to allow for watering. Water lightly.

Amaryllis_ChicoPlace your potted bulb in an area with good sunlight that stays above 60 degrees. The warmer the area, the quicker the plant is likely to grow and flower. Keep the plant watered, but on the dry side. You don’t want to overwater and cause the roots to rot, especially just after potting. It can take blooms a while to form, depending on the type of bulb and growing conditions, so be patient. As long as your bulb doesn’t feel “squishy” to the touch, it’s doing just fine.

A lot of people will toss their amaryllis after blooming, but you can easily get them to bloom year after year with the right kind of care. I would tell you about that now, but I have a funny feeling someone will be writing about it when the holidays are over. (Hint: I’m going to write about this when the holidays are over.)

IMG_4764Holiday Marketplace is right around the corner and preparations are in full swing.  Our talented, volunteer wreath makers are busy making all kinds of unique and one of a kind gifts out of donated materials responsibly collected from the woods and garden.  Don’t forget to mark your calendars to come to the Holiday Marketplace on December 7th and 8th to see the fruits of their labor!




raking_leaves_photo_for_websiteThe fall foliage has stopped being beautiful and has started being a real pain in the ass. Long woodland walks have quickly turned into endless afternoons raking leaves. It’s like this cruel Zen game where as soon as I finish, I turn around and—more leaves! Are you kidding! There aren’t even trees over there! Time to start all over again. After failing to convince myself that this is a “fun” chore, I usually just go get the lawn mower and start mowing over them—a great technique to use if you have a mulching mower and you mow frequently enough.

I always try to keep in mind that I am raking up a mini goldmine. Leaves are great for your compost pile—and more importantly, great for your WINTER compost pile. A lot of people don’t think about it, but your compost pile doesn’t stop working once the temperature drops.

It’s true that, like Amtrak, tourism, and my metabolism, the microbes that break down the organic material in your compost are sluggish during the winter months. However, there are steps that you can take to optimize the production and health of your compost. For starters, make sure that your compost is covered. This not only provides insulation, but it also helps to regulate moisture. It’s true that you want to keep your compost pile moist,compost_tarp but too much moisture can cause your compost to slow down and heavy snows can have a negative effect. Covering your compost also keeps the snow off, so that when you want to add new material, you can get easier access. Be sure to weigh down the edges with stones or bricks so the wind doesn’t blow it away. The real goal here is to contain the heat, which helps to facilitate decomposition. In addition to covering the pile, create a windbreak around your compost by using hay bales, logs, cinder blocks or bags of raked leaves—anything that’s going to help contain the heat in your pile.

Next, you will want to chop up your kitchen scraps and green materials to a smaller than usual size. The smaller the better, but try to get things down to under 2 inches. Even in the summer months, this is a good way to speed up compost production, but it’s critical during the winter. Because my compost pile is kind of far from my house, I have a pail that sits outside the back door in which to collect scraps. It’ll be cold, so you won’t have to worry about the waste getting too stinky and you can cut down the number of trips to the compost pile. When you do make the trek to add new green material to the compost, cover newly added waste with a nice layer of all those dead leaves you raked in the fall. Again, this helps create a layer of insulation and, once the spring rolls around, that material should break down pretty quickly.

Compost_pailEven though the snows are deep and the temperatures are cold, your compost pile is still hard at work—there’s no need to lapse in your efforts during the winter freeze. Your garden will thank you come spring!

red_mapleSomewhere, buried deep in the depths of the memory graveyard known as my mom’s basement, there is a box marked “LEAVES.”  Inside are hundreds of fall leaves that, as a kid, I collected and then forced my mom to preserve for me. Who knows how many countless hours that poor woman spent each autumn ironing dead leaves between pieces of wax paper. Not that I wasn’t selective – you had to be a pretty special leaf to make the cut, displaying either pure perfection or a flaw so awesome that it deserved eternity. Some of these treasures would be cut out and made into bookmarks, ornaments, note cards, or drink coasters that I would give out as Christmas gifts, but a lot ended up being tossed into that box because 1.) I would always make way too many and 2.) my mom couldn’t ever come to terms with throwing anything I made away. A tradition she continues even now when I’m well into my thirties.

I thought the whole thing was magic. The wax paper, for sure, but also the process of the changing of the leaves in general. Even at our youngest, the color pallet that comes with every fall resonated inside of us, stirring emotion and imagination. I think one of the reasons that the phenomenon of autumn is so captivating year after year isn’t just because it’s beautiful, which indeed it is, but because it still conjures that same spark of wonder inside of us.

Of course, it’s not magic. It’s boring old science but that doesn’t make it any less amazing. The truth is, the vibrant colors that we see dotting our hillsides have, in some part, been there all season long. Leaves don’t exactly “change” color so much as they lose a color. That color of course being the green that we see all summer long. In the summer months, trees (and most plants) use the process of photosynthesis to convert sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water into oxygen and glucose – a type of sugar that the plant uses as food. Trees use their leaves to capture those elements (light, rain, and carbon dioxoide) and the leaves contain a chemical – chlorophyll – that makes the process of photosynthesis possible. It just so happens that the chlorophyll, more often than not, has a very dominant green pigment.

When the days start to get shorter and sunlight becomes less available, not only do people start shutting down their vacation homes, but trees start shutting down their sugar factories. The chlorophyll in a leaf, with all of its green pigment, fades away and reveals the yellows, oranges, reds, and browns that were there all along.

The color that remains is what we see in the fall, and it is a common design tool gardeners use to add interest to a landscape. There are many things to consider when choosing a tree for your home garden, which we’ve talked about before, one of those being fall color. Put the bright yellow autumn foliage of the Gingko Biloba against the reds of the Red Maple and the oranges of Witch Hazel, and you’ll have a color display that could rival any summer garden. Some plants are even named after their fall color, like the invasive burning bush that is so prevalent in this area and simply stunning this time of year. It’s not so rare for a plant’s greatest attribute to be its fall display.DSCN0035_Pond_Garden_-_Betsy_Thompson

Of course, we all know that some fall “shows” are better than others and the potency of that yellow and red is dependent on external factors. In general, the best fall foliage occurs in years when we’ve had a warm, wet spring, a summer that’s not too hot or dry, and a fall that has plenty of warm sunny days and cool nights – weather we are often lucky enough to experience most years here in the Berkshires, which is why people from all over pour into the region to see the amazing colors painting our gorgeous hillsides.  Like most things, it’s just better in the Berkshires!

colchicumIf you read this column regularly (hi mom!), you know I have been kind of whiny and down on the fall. I always have a hard time letting go of summer and admitting that it’s over, and I’ve been pretty vocal about it. However, this week has made me take back every bad thing I’ve said about autumn. If you were in the Berkshires this past weekend, there was no way you couldn’t have fallen in love with the magic that is early fall. It was one of those weekends where I found myself taking a big step back and thinking, “I can’t believe I’m lucky enough to live here!”

It may just be me, but the foliage seems to be exceptional this year. The trees are doing their thing in a big way and the plants in my garden are putting on a show of their own as they wind down the season and turn various shades of red, yellow, and brown. With all of those warm, earthy tones taking over, it makes it all the more shocking when, in the middle of it all, there’s a burst of spring color.

I’m talking about the bizarre little plant known as the fall crocus. I love this plant. The color and timing of Colchicum Autumnale is so shocking in contrast to the rest of the garden at this time of year that it causes most people to do a double-take and ask, “What is that??”

The fall crocus looks like a crocus, with all its beautiful pastel coloring and low-to-the-ground flowers, but it blooms in the early fall. Bulbs should be planted in early to mid September, or as soon as you receive them if you order them from a catalog or online retailer. This is an earlier planting time than your other bulbs like allium and narcissus, which you’ll want to plant in mid October. Usually, you’ll start to see blooms appear in late September on a single stem with no accompanying foliage—another attribute that makes this plant so interestingly weird. The foliage (about 3-8 leaves around a foot in length) comes up in early spring and dies back in the summer months. Like most bulbs, the Colchicum has the most impact when planted in large groupings or drifts—at least that’s my own personal opinion. Also, like most bulbs, they’ll start to naturalize and multiply over time.

This is a great plant to have in your garden when you want that unusual touch of something that is going to turn heads. It’s also a great reminder to us, on the eve of winter, of what we have to look forward to in the spring.

Well, it’s official—we have legitimately passed into the fall season. Yes, it happened on the calendar this past weekend (the autumnal equinox was September 22) but more importantly, it happened in my kitchen.

For the first time since way back in June, I turned on the oven. I roasted a pork shoulder, baked some sweet potatoes, whipped up some dinner rolls and while the oven was nice and hot, I threw in an apple pie for good measure. I don’t have air-conditioning in my house, so when the summer is hot, the oven is off, the grill is on and the baked goods are store-bought.  With temperatures dipping into the 40’s and (gasp) 30’s recently, it was time to fire up the kitchen again.growing garlic

That’s not to say that I haven’t been cooking—it’s just been different. Summer is all about what comes out of the garden: lots of fresh salads, grilled vegetables, berry and fruit desserts, and all kinds of different sandwiches and side dishes that utilizes whatever’s ripening at the time. However, regardless the time of the year, if I’m cooking something that falls into the “savory” category, more than likely it’ll have one common ingredient: GARLIC.

I love the stuff. If I’m cooking from a recipe that calls for it, I’ll usually double whatever it asks for. “That was too garlic-y for my taste,” is not likely something you will ever hear me say. I always need MORE.

So you can trust me when I tell you that you need to be growing garlic. It’s so easy to grow, easy to harvest, and easy to keep through the year. And it’s worth it. Fresh garlic is one of those things where you can really taste (and smell) the difference.

Believe it or not, you need to plant your garlic soon—like in two weeks—so it’s a good idea to start planning now. Planting garlic in October (usually the first or second week) will give you a harvest the following August. You can try using store-bought heads of garlic, however, sometimes store-bought is sprayed with a sprout inhibitor that can disrupt the growth process and hinder your success. The best place to get your garlic cloves is from a friend or a neighbor in your area who has grown it that year and is willing to share.

garlic cloveTo prepare your bed, turn the soil about eight inches deep, allowing enough room to plant your garlic about six inches apart. You want to pick a very well-drained area that will get lots of sun—at least six hours a day.

Take the heads of garlic that you’ve got and break it apart into individual cloves. Plant the cloves, pointy side up, so that the tips are about two inches from the top of the soil when covered, approximately three inches deep. Again, plant the cloves about six inches apart.

Once you have your garlic in the ground, you want to add a protective layer of mulch or straw, about 6-8 inches thick, over the entire bed. This will help keep the soil warm and will add an extra layer of protection through the winter months.

Now, pour yourself a mug of hot apple cider, enjoy the fall, and bake something. Your garlic will grow through the winter and, before you know it, you’ll be harvesting it in August.

To really learn how to grow the best garlic in town, the Berkshire Botanical Garden is offering a “Growing Garlic” class, taught by garden guru Ron Kujawski, on October 12 from 10 a.m. to noon.  You’ll learn about different varieties of garlic and even a little about other allium groups including shallots, leeks, and onions. It’s certain to inspire and inform! For more info, or to register, visit the website or call 413.298.3926.

hornwormFirst things first: the tomato worm, also known as the tomato hornworm, also know as Manduca quinquemaculata, isn’t a worm at all. It’s a caterpillar and a really BIG caterpillar at that. Think Alice in Wonderland caterpillar big, and you’ve got the idea. It’s no wonder, given its size (up to 4 inches long), that one or two of these “worms” on a tomato plant can wreak a lot of havoc really fast — defoliating leaves, eating new growth, and even eating young fruit, completely destroying a plant sometimes in the matter of a couple of days or even a night. For that reason, I advise to catch them early. Here’s what you should look for:

If you have them, you might start noticing leaf wilt or damage at the top of your tomato plant before you actually notice the tomato worm itself. They attach themselves to the undersides of leaves and tend to feed more at night to avoid the heat, which makes them difficult to spot. Plus they are green and will blend right in with the plant’s foliage, so that doesn’t do you any favors either. You also might start to notice dark green or black gross stuff on the lower leaves of the plant.  You guessed it — that’s their poop.

horw_worm_with_wasp_eggsThe nice thing about these “worms” is that they are big and you can catch them easily. If you have read past articles we’ve written here before, you can probably guess that I’m going to tell you to simply pick the caterpillar off of the plant and throw it into that ever reliable bucket of soapy water. In this case, vigilance is really your best weapon. Sometimes going out at night with a flashlight will make spotting them easier.

Now, this is where things really get interesting. If you see a tomato worm on your plant that has what appear to be little grains of white rice stuck to its back — leave it. It is doomed and it isn’t going to do any further damage to your plant. Those little white things are actually the cocoons of a type of parasitic wasp that are using the worm for food and eventually will kill it. You actually want all of those little cocoons to hatch and grow into wasps so that they will lay eggs on more tomato worms and help you with your problem. It’s even a good idea to plant companion plants such as Queen Anne’s lace, fennel, and dill around your vegetable garden to attract this type of wasp.

If your caterpillar doesn’t meet its doom via death by soapy water or wasp eggs and makes it to the pupae stage and forms a cocoon, don’t fret. This stage is spent in the top two inches of the soil. If you till your garden after your harvest, you should be able to kill almost all of them that made it into the ground. If they are fortunate enough to make it to adulthood, however, they will emerge in the late spring as a hummingbird moth (also known as the sphinx moth, also known as the hawk moth). To give them their due credit — these moths are great pollinators of night blooming plants.hummingbird_moth

Oh and that “horn” on it’s posterior is a total fake — perfectly harmless. It’s meant to fool predators but don’t fall for it.

RX-DK-GDN26605_deadhead-flowers_s3x4_lgIt happens every year and it goes way back to childhood; that stomach-turning moment when I see the first “Back to School” display at the store and realize that summer is flying by. How can this be? How can next week really be August? There must be some mistake. Aren’t we still in late spring? I’m just not quite ready to admit it, but I’m also that person that tells people I’m still in my early-mid-thirties so that’s not saying much.

Unfortunately, we cannot stop the momentum of time and summer will indeed be over before we know it. However, this doesn’t mean that you need to bring about summer’s demise prematurely in your garden.

When it comes to your flowering plants, they have one goal in mind and it’s not to impress you during evening cocktails. No, their job is to go to seed —  something that almost always happens once a plant has stopped flowering. If you interrupt that process, your plant will continue to grow and often, flower, because it hasn’t completed its task. Like when your boss walks in at 5 p.m. with a new job that still needs to be done — you keep working.

The maintenance practice of deadheading is how you redirect a plant’s energy from the goal of seed production to root and vegetation growth. Simply, it’s the removal of spent flowers from a plant. Whenever you have a flower on a plant that has started to decline in appearance, cut it off — usually at the next lateral bud, stem, or leaf. This is something that you can do all season long to extend the life of your plants and the overall appearance of your garden. Not only does deadheading encourage new growth, but it tidies the garden and rids it of spent materials. You don’t want to see decaying flowers mixed in with your fresh buds — it’s like having a cadaver at a beauty pageant. Frequent deadheading gives your beds a nice, fresh and clean look.

Of course, all plants are different and so are their blooms. For spear-shaped blooms like say, Delphiniums, flowers should be cut back when the flower stalk is about 70% spent. Other plants like Coleus and basil shouldn’t be allowed to flower at all. Pinch back the buds as soon as you see them start to appear on the plant to encourage thick, rich foliage.

Get into the habit of deadheading early on and you will be surprised at how much better your garden will look through the season. You’ll have more flowers, thicker foliage, and a fresh-looking garden that will look like it’s in late spring even if it’s not. Just like if I keep plucking grey hairs I will be in my early-late-thirties forever.

japanese_beetle_adultIt’s that time of year when Japanese beetles start coming out of the ground and our phone starts ringing off the hook with concerned gardeners asking for advice in how to deal with them. I wish I had a fool-proof, easy answer because, if I did, I would be a very rich man. The truth is that the Japanese beetle has long been a source of garden stress and there are a lot of different opinions on how to deal with them. Like most advice that we give, we try the most nontoxic approach and recommend using a combination of methods to tackle them.

Before we address their demise, for this pest, we need to focus for a minute on their life cycle. Japanese beetles start out as eggs and then hatch as grubs (the larval stage) that live just below the surface of your soil. That’s right, grubs — those disgusting, milky-white, wormy things (that’s the scientific description) that you find when planting in the spring, those are adolescent beetles on the brink of adulthood. Adult beetles emerge from the ground anywhere from mid-June through the end of summer — but grubs are really in the soil year-round and this is the best place to start addressing your problem. Not only do the grubs turn into beetles, but they will also eat the roots of your plants (especially grass) making the pest twice as destructive.grub

The best organic way to get rid of grubs is to use biological means. There are particular types of bacterial spores such as Paenibacillus popilliae that you can use which the grubs ingest and then become infected with a disease known as “Milky Spore” that will eventually kill the beetle larva. Over time the bacteria will build up in your soil and spread, reducing your grub count from year to year. Another biological weapon are beneficial nematodes. These are parasitic worms that will enter the grub through small body openings and then, basically eat the thing from the inside out. Unlike bacterial spores, however, beneficial nematodes need to be reapplied year after year.

The best time to do either of these tactics is in the spring and fall, when the larvae (grubs) are closest to the surface of the soil and feeding. But what can you do right now? Those grubs are all grown up and starting to pop out of the soil in droves, salivating for your garden.

beetle_life_cycleStart by picking them off and throwing them into a bucket of soapy water. Like me, Japanese beetles are sluggish in the morning, so if you get out early, you can usually just shake them off into the bucket and avoid touching them if you aren’t into the idea of picking them off by hand. The sooner you start getting rid of the beetles the better. They give off pheromones that attract other beetles, and then those beetles release more pheromones and attract even more beetles, etc. It is for this reason that you should avoid those unsightly, yellow beetle traps. Don’t let them fool you — yes, they are filled with dead beetles — but they use a very strong pheromone that attracts them to the trap, usually from miles around. The beetles you are catching are ones you are actually attracting to your yard, not deterring, making the problem that much worse.

If you want to use an organic pesticide, try a Neem-based solution or insecticidal soap. If your problem persists, you might want to try avoiding plants that the Japanese beetle prefers. This includes roses, Japanese maples, crab apples, and linden, birch, cherry, peach, and plum trees.

The chances of you completely eradicating your Japanese beetle problem are slim, however, with the right kind of care, you can significantly reduce their numbers and the amount of damage they do to your garden.

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