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By Chris Cohan

The solar eclipse has come and gone. Now what? Oh, that’s right, I gotta go weed my garden. Zen, therapeutic, weight-bearing exercise, and a good sweat and stretch. It’s all that and more. How satisfying is it to look up and see big bags stuffed full of weeds? It is right up there with the best of life accomplishments.

For those who don’t weed, well your life, as any weeder will tell you, is simply not complete. There remains a serious hole in your existence. Weeding is fundamental to the collective cosmos in the same way the sun rises in the east, tides, phases of moon, and seasons. It is a regular predictable event that cannot be denied. Weeding has a strong soul-fulfilling quotient. Deny its spiritual value at your own peril.

Sure, you have been busy with many things. Too many things, that’s the problem. How does our day get gobbled up by texting, reading mindless emails, and clicking through 57 channels and nothing on? Now we have hundreds of channels yet the problem persists. Then there is the checkout line at supermarkets confronting us with magazine covers of happily smiling folks in perfect condition telling us of the newest and best diets and exercises. We turn our backs to the magazines, look down at our carb-heavy purchases, smile, and ponder deeper decisions — paper or plastic?

Who has the time to diet and exercise? We all do. Drop the phone, turn off the TV, take your hand out of the snack bag and enter the garden. The universe in its infinite wisdom devised weeding to complete you. It burns calories without you having to hop in a car, drive, park, and trudge into the gym only to wait for a machine. Nope, Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” said, ‘There’s no place like home.”  She was right. Happiness awaits you right there at home.

You now have the comforting words of two American icons to justify getting down, dirty, and weeding. Your waistline will shrink. Your muscles will ache in a good way. Your blood circulation and oxygen level will ramp up. Oh, and that annoying ache in your neck from perpetually staring at a phone screen will diminish. All thanks to the lowly weed. 

Weeds are agnostic, and non-discriminating. They are opportunistic and pop up wherever there is an opening. Grab their proverbial necks and yank.

Now is the time to get serious about weeding. Remove before they set and drop seed. Otherwise, your weeding next year will be a very big chore. For instance, morning glory vines covered in blooms in early mornings are preparing to let loose an army of viable seeds. Keep a lookout for seed pod production and remove ASAP.

Wild grape may be cute but it’s cunning. It tenaciously creeps through the garden, up and around trunks only to cover innocent shrubs with its petite grape leaves. Yank without compassion. Phragmites, the scourge of moist areas, should be cut NOW to remove the flowery tassels, which are seed bombs. Cut as close to the ground as possible and paint freshly cut tube-like stalks with undiluted Roundup. This will kill some and weaken the rest. If any green up again in early fall, repeat. Next spring, do it again. After your repeated effort, the physical removal will be less back-breaking than attaching a healthy stand. Going forward, keep a close eye on green shoots and treat or remove, as they will come back if ignored.

If a plant is doing well under stressful conditions, it’s probably a weed. If there is a mass of them growing where you do not remember planting something, or climbing up and around other plants and shrubs, they are most likely weeds. Some are beautiful, fooling you into allowing them to stay. But they will take over and swallow your garden becoming a full-time job trying to evict.

Once weeding is done your gardens will look neat, tidy, and serene. The remaining plants will be happy. You will be genuinely tired, yet calm, and satisfied by a job well done. 

Weeding, like homework, should never be put off to the last minute. Do the hardest first and early. Be as smart a weeder as you were a student. Didn’t everyone go to a good school and graduate top of their class?

 

By Chris Cohan

Pullquote: Like petulant, privileged progeny, if trees are never encouraged to spread their roots and venture forth, you may find yourself saddled with a permanent basement dweller.

He wouldn’t talk. He held tough. Under a bare bulb, on a hard chair in a stuffy tool shed he just wouldn’t break. I pressed harder. Finally, he caved. “OK, OK, you’re right, I put a ten-dollar tree in a one-dollar hole. I confess I did it. I’m guilty.”

The horror of it all. He had it backwards: it’s make a ten-dollar hole for a one-dollar tree. Never go cheap when preparing a planting hole. A mistake he promised not to repeat.

You and your plants will be better off if you always put effort into creating a welcoming hole. Dig it twice the size of the root ball. Remove any debris, rocks, and poor soil, if present. Save and reuse the topsoil. Add compost and peat moss. Compost will increase organic matter and attract beneficial organisms. Peat moss will loosen heavier soils for easier root penetration, aid in water retention, and provide slow-release nitrogen. Avoid synthetic fertilizers, as they may burn the roots and set your hard work back. 

Incorporate mycorrhiza, one of Mother Nature’s natural wonders. It is a fungus that has a symbiotic relationship with plants. (Imagine if we could sprinkle mycorrhiza on Washington to promote a symbiotic relationship?) The fungus stimulates plants’ uptake of vital nutrients, which in turn promotes hardier plant growth to better withstand disease and drought.

Mycorrhiza is safe, natural, and readily available at most garden centers and, of course, online. David Austin of rose fame, Myke, and Roots are a few good brands. Simply spread around root ball at planting time.

Prepare a welcoming, generous-sized hole. Most roots grow shallow and wider than the branches above to promote self-reliance. Provide them room to grow. A broader root system will ensure plants stand tall and able to feed themselves without your attentive care. Like petulant privileged progeny, if they are never encouraged to spread their roots and venture forth, you just may find yourself saddled with a permanent basement dweller.

In the end, the key is to feed the soil. An active dynamic soil with a lot of microbial activity will be far better for your plants to grow in. So, prepare holes well, incorporate compost, peat moss, mycorrhiza, and water when hole is half full. Allow water to soak in. Fill the hole. Then build a berm with the leftover planting soil to create a watering reservoir around the tree. Don’t rely on lawn irrigation or light sprinkling, since that will only moisten a few inches of topsoil and thus encourage weak surface roots. The bigger the tree, the more water it will require.

Finish off the hole with mulch, which suppresses weeds, regulates soil temperature, and keeps soil moist in between rainfalls. However, keep it away from the trunk! Always leave trunk flair exposed. NEVER, EVER create a volcano-shaped mound of mulch up a trunk. This is wrong and defies all horticultural logic. If you see your gardener doing it, stop him!

How did this practice start? Is it classic lemming-like behavior? ‘That guy did it so it must be good.’ Whatever the mindless excuse, all you are guaranteeing is rot, infection, and a weakened root system for your plants.

Sadly, it can be observed all around, from municipalities to schools, to even some estates. <Oy, vey, what <mishegoss is dis?> Remember to dig a ten-dollar hole for a one-dollar tree and never ever mound up trunks. Otherwise, you could find yourself under a bare bulb, on a hard chair, in a stuffy tool shed.

Improper Mulching

Proper Mulching Around

Around the Garden

Hot Diggity Dog

By Chris Cohan

It’s July and the Fourth is past. Leftover hot dogs are in the freezer. My hands, stiff from pulling weeds, feel relief wrapped around a morning mug of coffee, I ponder the age-old question: “Why are hot dogs sold in packages of ten, while buns are sold in packages of eight?”

The question gnaws away at me while I’m on my knees weeding the garden. Weeds, like lemmings, willingly march forth to their death by my yanking. They never quit. There are pretty ones, admittedly. Like an executioner with a conscience I contemplate letting some survive. A decision I live to regret days later as they have grown mightier and more difficult to slay.

Oh, the soft spot we gardeners have for any healthy plants. Regardless, of the difficulty they will eventually cause. Once again, I steel my resolve, head down, hands forward yanking with unbiased fervor. My back aches and my hands are cramped but my garden is tidy…. for now.

It is July, and the garden is looking good. Stately Hollyhocks, reaching to the sky, are covered with long lines of bloom. Their leaves show no signs of rust, yet. They are a vision of old-fashioned coziness set snugly by a garden gate.

Faded pale pink flowers dust the perimeter of the native rhododendron. Annabelle hydrangeas are lighting up the shady corners of gardens with their humongous bright white flowers.

Phlox are starting with leaves still unblemished. Remember never to water late in the day or upon the leaves to control mildew and fungal infections. Try mixing 1 teaspoon of baking soda, a few drops of liquid soap in 1 quart of water for a natural fungicide spray; works on phlox and roses, as well as vegetables and fruits. Cultivate a tablespoon of it around the base of tomatoes to reduce their acidity.

Daylilies could be dubbed the perfect perennial. They come in a color palette ranging from deep purple to pale white. Tall or short, they work well in front or back of borders. The flower shapes vary and some even have a fragrance. Then, there are early-, mid-, and late-season as well as repeat bloomers to consider. Once established, they are carefree.

Stella D’Oro is the most popular ever-blooming daylily. When the first wave of blooms wane — as they are now — keep them blooming by removing faded flowers — pronto!

There are many amazing daylilies to consider, from diploid, triploid to tetraploid varieties. Most are in the first category, with two sets of identical chromosomes.

Some remain as traditional diploids while others are bred or morph into triploids of eccentric interest. Who is to say which is right? Like someone who starts life running track ending up sporting high heels and lipstick to Daring Deception, a triploid re-blooming cross that’s a real pleaser. Abandon tired mores to welcome and embrace beauty where you find it.

Catmint began the season as modest mounds of gray leaves, which are now covered in large spreads of blue flowers. Remember to clip the spent flowers to call forth fresh bouquets of blue.

The large feathery flowers of Astilbe are in bloom, along with pink coneflower and bright white daisies. Black-eyed Susan is in the batter’s box, waiting its turn to flower.

Hot dry days are fast approaching. Remember to water early and less often but for longer periods of time. Mulch, of course, but no more of those volcano-like mounds up trunks of trees and shrubs. You will only guarantee disease, infection, and loss of plant material. Maybe it is time for mulch interventions with City, schools, and neighbors for them to cease and desist.

Remember, you are the maestro of your ever-evolving garden concert. Create your own horticultural melody. Start with clip, prune, weed, mulch, water, and improvise. The only question that remains is: “Why are hot dogs sold in packages of ten, while buns are sold in packages of eight?”

By Chris Cohan

The indefatigable daffodils are up and blooming. The sun is shining longer and warmer. Spring is upon us. Gardeners, there is no time to waste. Don your chapeaux, dust off those pruners, and get aggressive with those overgrown deciduous shrubs.

You’ll reap the best results if you complete the work before plants really begin to grow. This will stimulate new growth and deliver more flowers. The latest optimal date to get the job done varies from year-to-year, depending on the weather: 2014 was the hottest year on record until 2015, until 2016…

Start the pruning process by removing crossing or problematic stems, which leave plants more open and easier to attack. Next, remove the old stems to allow the younger, more virile ones room to grow. (Older stems, like some of us, may have a worn, tired exterior, but they can still be full of life, so proceed with care.)

Prune in an even way to create a balanced, well-formed shrub. Even the young stems will likely need to be cut back, especially if they are spindly and bending over once the large stems are removed. If there are not any young canes present, then cut the large stems back to 18-24 inches from the ground. This will be unsightly, but if the plants are healthy, extensive new growth should start from the old stems in spring and fill the plant in. As new growth develops over time, the remaining large stems should be cut out.

Rose-of-Sharon, with its soft wood, is a pleasure to prune. Feel free to cut back this hardy, rapid grower; it will come back even more robust.

White flowering hydrangeas should be pruned now. Butterfly bushes must be trimmed low to ensure they do not become top heavy and topple.

Praying Mantis favor Spirea. First observe the bare branches for their cocoons. If you spot any, please leave those branches until after the mantises have hatched. Clip the rest of the shrub by a third.

A cautionary note for over-eager gardeners: don’t prune everything the same. Lilacs, viburnum, blue flowering hydrangeas, and forsythia all flower on old wood. If pruned now they will not bloom in spring, so wait until after that first bloom. You can always cut forsythia branches and force inside for a bright jump on spring.

Roses always deserve special attention and will reward you with more blooms. After pruning make sure you clean the beds of fallen leaves and debris to reduce reinfection.

After pruning all shrubs it is easier to observe any overwintering scale, mites, and aphids. Spray with horticultural oil or the ever-popular Neem oil.

Wrap up this time in the garden with fertilizer and Epsom salt. While plants may not complain of achy joints, Epsom salt allows all kinds of plants to ingest magnesium quickly. Supplementing with Epsom salt increases chlorophyll production in plants, which in turn improves their strength. It stimulates bottom breaks, canes originating at the base of the plant, for dense, lush foliage, larger blossom size, and quantity.

Top dress soil with one tablespoon of Epsom salt per foot of plant height around the plant. Add complete fertilizer now as well. Cultivate in and water thoroughly. If you have any Epsom salt left over, reapply a month from now.

Early season care and attention will ensure that your garden is off to a great start.

By Bill Lawyer

Proust may have had his “petites madeleines” to take him back to days gone by, but for me, it’s honeysuckles. The long tubes of these arching shrubs lure in hummingbirds and other pollinators to their nectar.

As I walk along Rye Beach Avenue near Hillside Place this time of year, there are several areas where a variety of vines are having a great time covering over the stonewalls in the no-mans land where the construction of another McMansion is taking place.

The most prominent of the vines are the honeysuckles — their creamy white flowers stand out in bright contrast to the somewhat dull and dusty greenery of the other creepers.

Getting back to the memories of childhood, one of my first encounters with honeysuckle stands out. When I was about 4, I remember finding them growing in and around several privet hedges along my neighborhood. They had just started to flower and caught my attention.

Back in those days not too much thought was given to the possible dangers of bringing in plants and animals native to other parts of the world. In fact, importing exotic or rare plants for use in creating beautiful gardens was often seen as a very good thing.

As a kid, I certainly wasn’t thinking about things like that. In fact, the one plant that I really did not like was poison ivy, which is actually a native.

Getting back to my childhood memory, the very first time I became aware of the “secret” of honeysuckle was a few weeks later, when I was walking with my father along a country road by my grandfather’s farm, near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

My father told me to stop for a moment, as he had something to show me. Pointing to a thick stand of honeysuckles, he said, “Here’s a juicy plant that tastes good and grows all over the place.” But, he added, “You have to know how to get what each flower offers you: a sweet drop of nectar.”

He picked a flower carefully from the vine, making sure that he removed the green bud (known as the calyx, as I learned a few years later), where the flower connects to the stem. Then he pinched the flower above the calyx, making sure to break through the petal.

Next, he pulled on the end of the flower, and as he pulled, a white string, part of the flower, came out. As he pulled, all the nectar emerged. This made it easy to suck the sweet liquid, which was like licking a juicy popsicle.

I can still remember looking at plants in a whole new light. At that time I had no idea about evolution, adaptation, or the food chain. I just thought it was amazing that a wild plant could produce something so tasty.

Not until much later, when studying botany in college, did I learn that the nectar of a honeysuckle is about 24 per cent sugar and glucose, as opposed to the sap of a sugar maple, which is 3 to 5 per cent sugar.

At the time, what I mostly remembered was the simple pleasure of a walk with my father on a country road on a summer day, learning something new and fun about a plant that grew everywhere for us to enjoy. I still remember it now.