Ear to the Ground: The Insider Dirt to Gardening in Upstate NY

Think Spring!

by cathym on April 1, 2019

by Valerie Shaw

The wind is howling, my daughter is home sick, and the snow can’t seem to decide whether it will melt, harden into ice, or smother us in another five inches. It’s starting to feel like winter will never end! Yet, beneath that icy layer, things are getting ready to change. Believe it or not, it’s time to start thinking Spring! 

Mini Greenhouses
How about some fresh veggies, right now? In our sunny living room, we’re trying something new this year. My son calls it, “Let Us Have Lettuce!” It’s easy, inexpensive, and fun. First, get a clear tote, with a lid, and a bag of potting soil (not starter, that’s different). Place the lid of the tote where you want the greenhouse; it’ll get heavy, so make sure it’s a sturdy table. Lay the bag of soil flat on this, and then cut a wide rectangle in the bag’s top, making a little garden bed. Fluff slightly with a fork or other tool, then generously sprinkle lettuce, kale, spinach, or other salad green seeds. Water gently, pat down the seeds a little. Now take the clear tote, and put it upside down over the lid. Our lettuce sprouted the very next day! If it’s too gloomy, you can use a halogen or other growing light to help your little sprouts. Just the same as any other method, if it gets very sunny and warm, make sure to lift the tote for airflow so you don’t cook your seedlings. You can use this this idea outside once it warms a little, too! This method also has the added perk of protecting your seedlings from too-curious little fingers, or interested family cats. You might also try growing radishes, herbs, or mini carrots this way.

Planning Ahead
One of the biggest pieces of advice I give both kids and parents doesn’t even need a trowel. Read! Read those catalogs, and read those seed packets before you rip ‘em open. Kids get hooked on gardening when they are successful at it, and reading ahead is one of the best ways to make sure that happens. For example, if you’re buying a blueberry bush, make sure it’s intended for your area. There are northern and southern varieties, and choosing the wrong one will waste a summer’s worth of work, and your moola, too. 

Garden Planning
Get out your pencils! Now is a great time to plan ahead and make some garden plans. It’s prime seed catalog time, and soon the nurseries will be filling with green choices. Think about the veggies your family likes to eat, and try a few new varieties. Or take the Veggie Challenge: As a family, pick a vegetable you don’t like, but know you should. Grow a few plants of it, and see how many different ways you can eat it. Maybe one will be a winner! Sometimes, we just have to try something a few times to change our minds. 

If you don’t have one yet, now is a great time to start a garden journal. No fancy book needed, a notebook will do! Colored pencils and stickers can help kids add their own touches to your records. Make sure to write down any funny or interesting memories, too.

Mom‘s Strawberry Jam. Photo courtesy Flickr: Meal Makeover Moms

Berry Good  
I highly recommend strawberry plants for children; they’re just so joyful and easy. Have the child paint a big flowerpot whatever colors they choose, put in some potting soil, and three to five strawberry plants. Or make a little garden bed out in the yard. And here’s a fun painting project that is very useful: painting a handful of strawberry-sized rocks can trick your local birds into leaving your juicy berries alone! Simply paint the rocks a jolly berry red (acrylic paint works great), and place in your strawberry patch a few weeks before your berries come in. The birds will attempt to “eat” them, decide that these are the worst berries ever, and then leave your patch unscathed when the real fruit ripens. Remember, “June bearing” strawberries will make a ton of berries all at once, great for making jam. “Ever-bearing” will keep pumping out berries for a longer season, but less at once.    

Pumpkin Club
This last idea is actually a year-long project, ideal for school, church, or other groups. It would be good fun in a close neighborhood, or group of friends! The group all buys a packet of pumpkin seeds, and plants them at the same time. Once a month, someone hosts a “pumpkin party”, and kids can share their growing tips and show off how their vines are doing. There’s a ton of fascinating methods on the Internet for growing big pumpkins (did you know some people feed them milk?). In October, there’s a final Harvest party, where everyone brings their ‘kins. Prizes can be given out for the biggest, the cutest, the most orange, spookiest, and so on. It’s a great way to bring families together for some gardening fun! 

Valerie Shaw lives in West Monroe, NY, with her lettuce-loving family, some silly goats, and too many wild deer that prematurely prune her fruit trees. She’s a youth coach at the Y, an avid gardener, and a painter that also loves to write long novels. She can be reached at magicschoolcar@yahoo.com for any kid-related gardening questions!


Almanac: March – April 2019

by cathym on March 19, 2019

Early spring is one of the most difficult times for timely tips. How we transition from snow and biting cold to chilly or even balmier weather depends on the year. The following suggestions, created with upstate New York still in winter’s grip, take a middle ground.  Some suggestions maybe too late. Others could be put off for several more weeks.

The period around the equinox (March 20, 2019) is good for fertilizing house plants. Unless they are growing exclusively under lights, longer, brighter days stimulate renewed growth. Nutrients provided this time of year jump start this springtime flush.

Hopefully, your vegetable and flower seed orders have arrived. The packs of onions, leeks, celeriac, and celery are likely sown, and, if they aren’t, although it is not too late, the transplants they produce might be less than ideal in size when they go into the garden starting in late April and early May. This is prime time for sowing warm season crops such as peppers and tomatoes.

Spring-flowering, deciduous shrubs cut and brought indoors will sprout blooms months before they naturally flower outdoors. Cut the stems on a day above freezing and submerge them in a pail of warm water for a couple hours. Then place the branches in a tall container in a dimly lit space. Consider spritzing those stems with water, as that keeps the bark supple and allows the swelling buds an easier way to push through. Changing the water daily slows the growth of bacteria and fungi in the water. Both of these, when taken up by the xylem, “clog the plumbing” and interfere with bud development.

Depending on the plant, the chilling requirement has almost certainly been met by now. Some were reset to bloom shortly after Christmas (forsythia, red maple, pussy willow, and serviceberry, for example). Others, such as crabapple, redbud, and magnolia, require longer dormancy. Display all these flowering stems out of direct sun and warm drafts for the longest enjoyment.

Cherry branches are good candidates for forcing indoors.

If spring bulbs such as tulips, hyacinths, and daffodils were potted and put in the refrigerator last fall, plan to remove them a month prior to when you want the floral display. Only a couple of weeks is required for forcing crocus, snow drops, and winter aconite.

Venture outside during a break in the weather and examine trees and shrubs for evidence of the ravages of winter. Without foliage it is much easier to discern damage that either you or a professional should tend to. Healthy trees can benefit from preventative maintenance such as reducing their crown size. This reduces the severity of storm damage in the future. Look also for egg masses on the bark. Gypsy Moth cycles in our area occasionally. The Spotted Lantern Fly was found in the central Finger Lakes and Rochester last year. The manila egg masses of both are somewhat similar, and scraping them off helps slow the spread of these invasive insects.

Deciduous shrubs respond well to regular pruning. (For instance, by keeping stem diameter of lilacs to less than an inch, the likelihood of a lilac borer infesting a stem is close to zero). Pruning late in the dormant season, before bud break, guides new growth to the direction you want. It’s a good idea, but not required, to prune annually. With a little pruning each year, glaring evidence of a significant pruning is avoided and the plant’s stature remains somewhat constant.

First, select for removal disease and damaged branches. Then, remove the oldest and largest diameter branches. I might remove a quarter but no more than a third of a shrub’s branches. Cut the stems close to the ground. Pruning high in the shrub or removing only branch ends fosters a taller plant with blooms that are up in the air and more difficult to see from the ground. These pruned stems may be forced indoors as described previously.

The most productive fruiting stems of blueberry and currant shrubs are less than four years old. A plant with a dozen or so stems with a mix of one, two and three years old, maximizes yield potential and makes fruit harvesting easier.

Evergreen shrubs such as yew (Taxus spp.) and boxwood (Buxus spp.), particularly those trained as a hedge, benefit from some selective deep pruning. Without that, leaves grow in a narrow band on the plant’s edge. Removing a mid-forearm’s length stem, creating a fist-size hole, (or less with a very small boxwood) exposes dormant buds of the interior to light. These then sprout and grow.

Few of us really want to see the bare lower stems of an evergreen shrub. (An exception might be when creating a bonsai or topiary.) Keep hedge foliage growing close to the ground by trimming the hedge in a trapezoid, with a broad base and narrow top. Vertical sides or broad tops encourage naked lower stems.

Early-season working of the soil depends on the clay content and slope of the land. Working soil that is too wet destroys its tilth, or structure. Make an assessment of soil’s workability by taking a small handful and gently compressing it to a ball in your hand. Now, with the ball in your open palm, gently poke it. If it crumbles, soil work can commence. If the ball resists breaking, then the soil is too wet. Try again a week or so later, unless rainfall keeps the soil saturated.

If springtime cabin fever is an annual event and your soil is not receptive to early cultivation, consider creating raised beds with or without artificial sides. Being higher than the surrounding ground, these areas drain earlier and may be prepared sooner.

The addition of organic matter, particularly compost, is another aid for improving drainage that facilitates early season gardening activity.

In recent years, gardeners reported sightings of invasive worms in their landscape. This time of the year, look for coffee-ground like castings on the soil surface. For unexplained reasons, in 2018, the number of worms significantly dropped in many areas of the Rochester and Finger Lakes as well as part of the lower Hudson Valley. Young Asian worms are most easily seen by mid-May. Look for the telltale blond or gray clitellum or band near the worm’s head. If you find any, consider putting a pin on the virtual map found at nyimapinvasives.org.

Spring weather is coming—Punxsutawney Phil forecasted it!

—Walt Nelson, Cornell Cooperative Extension, Monroe County


story and photos by Christine Froehlich

Shrubs of varying heights create interest and privacy

Bumping up curb appeal often starts with buying more plants. A few shrubs, a tree, or some snazzy containers might be just the thing… or is it? A quick fix can be tempting, but if you want to improve the looks of your front yard and you aren’t sure how to get started, adding more plants right off the bat might not be the answer. Sometimes the best way go about it is to work with what you already have. You might even end up liking the plants you think you want to get rid of.

An autumn view of the garden

Robert Salmon and Catherine Fuller’s garden makeover began with a bunch of spindly trees in their front yard. Robert had been eying the forlorn specimens, worried they might fall on the house. He was about to carefully go at them with a chain saw when his wife, Catherine, called me to consult about their fate—and general appearance of the front yard. She was afraid that if they were removed their house would be too exposed to the street. 

The trees, an assortment of self-sown cherry trees (with a few nice oak and ash saplings mixed in) were leggy specimens with no great appeal. But on the plus side, they provided a degree of privacy from the road and connected the house with the woodlands surrounding it. We decided to compromise on the trees, selecting the healthiest ones with the nicest forms and removing the rest. Even though they weren’t perfect specimens, their height offset the scale of the two-story house. Plus, they would provide a perfect canopy for more attractive plants—a layered planting of shrubs and possibly perennials or groundcovers. We began brainstorming about how to marry it all up to the existing woodlands and foundation plantings that hugged the house.

View from the street
Planted areas seamlessly blend with surrounding landscape

The trees sprang up randomly from an enormous oval shaped bed about fifteen feet from the house and spanned almost the entire width of the front yard. It was a natural but sloppy mess filled with weeds and junky shrubs, but strengthening the connection between the existing foundation plantings and woodlands with better looking plants had possibilities. 

It was a lot of space to plant. Robert and Catherine both like to garden, but their busy work schedules limited gardening, so we needed to make it as low-maintenance as possible. 

Getting Started
We chose plants that would help integrate the leggy trees into the surrounding landscape. Robert and Catherine had a lot of room to work with and their house was large. If your property is small, take heart—the same concept can be used with smaller-scale plants.

Begin by choosing varieties with cultural needs that suit your site and fit the style you want. The growth habit and mature size of the plants you choose should match up to the job you want them to do. For example, slow-growing shrubs or trees with a vertical habit for tight spaces, fast-growing flowering shrubs for privacy borders, or plants with distinct forms to serve as focal points. 

Add Structure
We began with structural plants—the trees and shrubs. The largest specimens went in first. To balance the scale of the existing trees and insure against future tree loss, we planted Fagus sylvatica ‘Asplenifolia’ on the opposite side of the bed. Commonly known as fern-leaf beech, this stately tree has a pyramidal shape and a lovely texture—the delicate cut leaf resembles fern foliage. 

Around the base of the leggy trees, a mass of Viburnum tomentosum took care of masking the bare bottoms. Also known as doublefile viburnum, you can’t beat it for quick coverage. This fast-growing, deciduous shrub is tall (twelve to fifteen feet) and has a horizontal branching habit (eight to ten feet wide) that makes an attractive screen. Outrageous clusters of white flowers blossom from late May through June, and in fall, the leaves turn an intense plum color with red fruits the birds flock to.

Form and Foliage 
The form of the shrubs and trees dictate the style of a planting. Here, they played an important role in contributing to what I call “the controlled wild look.” The idea was to mimic the woodland without looking sloppy. Fast-growing deciduous shrubs with relaxed growth habits fit the bill. 

We bumped up curb appeal by choosing shrubs with exciting foliage, flowers, berries and interesting texture.

Layers of Shrubs
Shrubs of varying heights were layered together in groups of three and five throughout the bed. This lent a naturalistic look to the planting and provided more screening from the street. 

Many deciduous shrubs of varying sizes offer gold, magenta and variegated foliage. Most are fast growing and are an inexpensive way to fill space quickly and attractively. We made the most of their attributes here, contrasting foliage colors to increase visual impact. 

What We Planted And Why
Most of the shrubs used are deciduous, but some evergreens were included for additional winter interest.

Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diabolo’ (ninebark) has an arching habit that resembles forsythia and sports pretty, whitish-pink flowers in June. I like it best for the wine-colored foliage that pops out in late spring. Unpruned, this shrub matures at around eight to ten feet tall with a spread of six to eight feet, perfect for the back of the bed.

Cornus alba ‘Ivory Halo’ (Red twig dogwood) The flowers aren’t showy, but the crisp green and white leaves are striking. It grows quickly (four to five feet) and has bright red bark that adds color to a winter landscape.

Ilex meservae ‘Blue Girl’ and ‘Blue Boy’ are also known as blue holly because of their dark blue-green leaves. This variety grows a little slower than others, usually about five to six feet depending on conditions. Red berries and shiny dark leaves add contrast and winter color. Hollies come in two sexes and only females produce berries. To get them to berry you need to have a boy nearby, so make sure to plant both.

Weigela florida ‘Wine and Roses’ The combination of the dark magenta leaf and vibrant pink flowers make this one of my favorite mid-sized shrubs. It reaches a height of about 4 feet and has an arching growth habit.

Hydrangea quercifolia‘Snowflake’: Also known as Oakleaf hydrangea, this slower-growing variety is five to six feet tall. Longwhite panicles pop out in August and turn pink as fall arrives. Bold leaves, which are shaped like oak leaves (hence the name) turn deep magenta as fall progresses.

No Bare Ground
It takes around three years for shrubs to mature. While you’re waiting for them to grow, the quickest way to reduce weeding and achieve immediate gratification is to fill in bare spots with perennials. Obviously, you don’t want any you’ll have to stake or deadhead, so pick low maintenance varieties.

For this planting we chose varieties with interesting foliage and long-lasting flowers. 

HostaSum and Substance’: This big hosta (about 3 ½ ft tall) adds pizazz to a shady garden with its enormous pleated chartreuse leaves.

Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’: Nepeta, especially this cultivar, (36” tall and wide) tends to hog all the space around it, but there was plenty of room here. The long-lasting blue flowers and gray foliage provided a tidy border for the front of the bed.

Amsonia hubrichtii: Commonly known as Bluestar, the pale blue flowers that bloom in June and July are pretty, but I chose this substantial (2’x3’) perennial for the delicate feathery foliage that turns vibrant gold in early fall.

Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foester’: Also known as feather reed grass, this tall (4’) upright grass has attractive vertical foliage that doesn’t flop. It looks pretty in winter too.

Pennisetum alopecuroides: A fat fuzzy grass around 3 ½ feet tall great for added softness and height.

Several views of the mix of trees, shrubs,
and perennials in the Salmon-Fuller garden

By the end of the first summer, the bottoms of the leggy trees were almost hidden by shrub foliage, and the bed blended gracefully into the foundation plantings and natural stone wall Robert had built. It was a perfect marriage.  Robert and Catherine liked it so much that they kept on going, eventually reclaiming more of their overgrown property and extending the controlled wild look farther out into the woods. 

While we all might not be able to turn an ugly duckling into a swan, most of us have plantings that could be rearranged, or embellished to increase curb appeal. It’s worth taking a closer look at what’s going on in the front yard before you go shopping. Who knows? You might end up creating a garden you really want instead of the one you think you’re stuck with. 

View from the front door to the street

Find Christine Froehlich at gardeningwithwhatyouhave.com.