GARDEN WORKS: Is spring really here? Tips for a productive garden this time of year

Emily Catesby Emily Cates

Well, lookie here! Could it be? Why, yes, I think it is! Finally, the moment where I can actually go out to my garden and really feel like I can do something other than twiddle my green thumbs while looking at seed catalogs. The snow has melted in most parts of my lawn, and well-drained areas and raised beds are ready to be worked. And I figure it’s good to get going before the going gets good for the pesky black flies. I’m sure all of us who love to be outdoors can appreciate that, so let’s take a look at a few activities we can do to welcome Springtime. We’ll make sure the soil is ready to work with, and things we can do whether it is or not.

How do we know if the ground is ready to be worked? The soil should have the consistency of a wrung-out sponge when squeezed. If it forms a sticky ball, be patient and wait for the ground to dry out – or you’ll run the risk of damaging the soil structure.

Raised beds have a great advantage this time of year, as they are usually well-drained and ready to be worked before lower-lying areas of the garden. (I dug one up the other day and could’ve planted it if I had time!) I prefer to mulch my raised beds heavily if I get around to it in the fall so that when I dig them up in the spring, they are much easier to work. However, since mulch can hold in the cold, it might be a good idea to move it to the side in early spring until the soil has warmed, and then replace after the bed is planted.


The plots in my garden that I care for are dug exclusively by hand with a spading fork. Of course it would be easier to till with motorized equipment, but I do have weeds like quackgrass that spread by rhizomes.

To chop them into the soil would simply multiply them beyond my management capabilities – more work for me than just digging by hand and meticulously removing as many weeds and roots as I can while preparing a bed. I’ve found that over the years, I have less and less of a quackgrass problem when I carefully dig by hand and mulch – either with living mulches and cover crops such as oats – or straw, cardboard, old wood chips, or black plastic mulch. Now if only my aching back was as pristine….

The best plants for cold weather include kale, spinach, peas, carrots, leeks and other alliums. And don’t forget that trees, shrubs, and vines should be planted while they are still dormant – a ways before most garden plants are ready to plant. As soon as you can dig a hole, you can plant a tree! Don’t wait for it to warm up to do this if at all possible. (See details for the FEDCO Tree Sale below!)

Cold frames, hoop houses, high-tunnels, row covers, and similar items combined with cold-loving plants can really jump-start the season. Be sure to make good use of them if you have them handy.

Oftentimes there is no getting around areas that are slow to warm. North-facing places, especially, are the last to be ready for action. At times, this can cause considerable delay, though there might be a couple of things we can do. Some folks cover the area with a layer of clear plastic to help it heat up. Another possibility is container gardens: just fill large tubs with the planting mix of choice and go from there. Black containers will heat up their contents quicker.

If working the soil and planting is just not an option, it might be good to put some time into preparation, such as building up a compost pile and a mulch heap in a handy place near the garden. Stocking up on soil amendments is never a waste of time, as is clean-up of plant residues from the previous season. Without a doubt, we can find something to do!

Few things get me in the mood for Springtime more than the annual FEDCO Tree Sale. Located on the Hinckley Road, in Clinton, the sale runs Friday and Saturday, May 4 and 5. Be there if you can, you won’t regret checking out their vast assortment of everything you can imagine growing in your garden and the supplies to help you. It’s a lot of fun and a perfect trip to take with family and friends. See you there!

GARDEN WORKS: Gardening from an easy chair

Emily Catesby Emily Cates

Plan your dream garden while it snows

As I type this article, snow is gently and gracefully descending from the sky to my yard. I look out the window, captivated. It’s hard to be inspired to work in the garden when it’s snowing. However, there is a different – and some say as exciting – way to get your green thumb fix, all in the comfort and convenience of a cozy armchair. If snuggling up to a seed catalog comes to mind, then we’re on the same page. What other publications evoke such passion and nostalgia?

Our mailboxes and the cyber world are filled with all kinds of catalogs this time of year, begging for our attention. The glossies have their impossibly perfect pictures of flawless specimens, raising our hopes sky high that our gardens will likewise produce such beauties. One catalog offers what seems an unbelievable deal and another has a coupon for a specified amount of “free” merchandise (or shipping) if the cost of your order reaches a certain total. Another catalog claims unmatched quality and another has varieties that are “exclusive.” And yet another catalog is brimming with full-color photos of rare and endangered varieties that are so unusual you would wonder what planet they were from.

So many choices! So much hype! How can a practical-minded gardener keep it simple and affordable, yet remarkable and pleasant? Here are some hints, I hope they help:

First, I should mention that the best seeds are likely the ones you or your friends and neighbors lovingly saved from last year and thoughtfully maintained. However, when purchased seeds from a catalog are desirable, check the reviews for the seed company. Dave’s Garden and other online forums are oftentimes helpful to sift out the “bad seeds.” Also, make sure their offerings will grow in our cold northern climate. (Some companies actually grow their crops in warmer locations, yet market those varieties as being suitable for northern growers.)

Usually it is possible to tell if they are a “seedy” enterprise or not, especially when their catalog is honest in its descriptions as opposed to inflated hyperbole. Be realistic! A good rule of thumb is to order from a catalog where the seeds were grown in Maine or another location similar to ours. I have always had good results doing business with Maine companies such as Fedco, Johnny’s and Pinetree. Give these guys a try; each is a unique, high-quality seed company that has never disappointed me. All of them offer valuable heirlooms for small gardens as well as worthy commercial varieties for markets. Look for early bird specials, consider group ordering possibilities, and save on shipping by picking up your order whenever practical.

If you are looking for something truly unique that cannot be found anywhere else, read the descriptions carefully. Pay attention to the days to maturity and growing zones. Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company and Sand Hill Preservation Center are both seed companies I would highly recommend for rare and heirloom varieties. Also check out the Seed Savers Exchange and Territorial Seed Co if you are interested in something different. Happy seed-searching!

GARDEN WORKS – Doctoring Trees: How to help them after a harsh winter

Has winter caused damage to your fruit trees?

Emily Catesby Emily Cates

Are you feeling a little beat up from this winter? I sure am! And from the looks of it, so are a few of my fruit trees and a few more in the woods. While the promise of springtime is certain, it may be a while until it arrives. Until those glorious days arrive, we simply must endure.

Of course, we need not wait idly for springtime; there is plenty to do! And, the more we stay busy, the quicker it will seem to arrive. Look on the bright side: no bugs, scorching heat, or weeds to deal with! Also, the pace is much more relaxed and many activities can be done without as much competition from other chores. In this article, let’s look at something healing we can do in the meantime – giving attention to trees that need some help. After the windstorm last fall and other storms since, we’re sure to find something in our yards that needs TLC.

Sometimes it’s clear how to fix a broken tree, and sometimes it’s not. However you decide to care for them, use clean, sharp tools. Try to resist the urge to use a chainsaw when you can use hand tools, as that rips through branches as opposed to a clean cut. (Can you blame a tree for faring better with precision tools? Would you prefer a surgeon with a chainsaw or a scalpel?) Lop or saw damaged branches neatly to the “collar” from which they grew. When sawing, be sure to cut deeply from the bottom first a bit, then remove the saw and start again from the top side, sawing downward through the limb to eventually meet the cut made underneath. This will prevent tearing of the bark under the limb and damage to the good part of the tree when the limb falls off.

Oh no! What if the trunk of the tree is cracked or split? Some folks have had success from rather heroic efforts involving splinting, tying, cabling, and even duct taping. The sooner a damaged tree is repaired, the better a chance it has of healing. Don’t wait if you can help it. Your peach trees will thank you. Remember, though, not to leave on any items that could hinder the tree after it has healed, such as wire, rods, boards, rope and the like. If a tree is prone to damage, perhaps it needs to be pruned, supported, and fruits thinned. Or maybe it needs a better location, or a different tree altogether….

What if it’s not possible, despite our best efforts and intentions, to save a damaged tree? Well, maybe then it’s time for the chainsaw. Oftentimes a cut tree will sprout up and save itself with a little help. In grafted specimens, cut above the graft if possible and keep only sprouts that are growing above the graft. If this is not feasible, cut down to the part that is least damaged. Some folks insist in coating the wound with Treekote or something similar, but I don’t usually bother and let the tree heal itself. If all that is left is a stump and the tree decides to send up sprouts from the roots or base of the tree, select the most vigorous sprout and remove the rest. This sprout can be used as a rootstock onto which a desired variety can be grafted.

Well, I hope these activities help lessen the sting of a harsh winter and usher in the spirit of springtime. Enjoy the increasing sunshine as much as you can!

GARDEN WORKS: Bored in Wintertime? Read on for the remedy

Winter is upon us!


by Emily Cates

For a while there, I’d thought Old Man Winter had forgotten us. No such luck! Now that we’re basking in the ice and snow, at least we can be comforted by the thought that the Solstice is behind us and the days will now start to get longer. Would it be a good time to take a respite from garden activities? Perhaps. But what if we’re feeling restless and would rather enjoy the satisfaction from getting things done? Well, then, read on for a few seasonally-appropriate suggestions; this time we’ll focus on a variety of activities, including pruning and tool maintenance.

First of all, though, let’s not forget to mark any trees or shrubs that might get smooshed by the snow plow. Are there specimens that need winter protection? Labels are often lost in the wind and snow, so making a map of ‘what’s there and where’ is always a good idea.

Black-knot fungus

Do you have European plum trees? Now is a fine time to check them for the fungal disease black knot. I have a Stanley plum that gets this every now and then. Trees with this problem will greatly appreciate our attention to this matter. Can we blame them? Black knot literally looks like dried dog poop on a branch, and will eventually spread to other branches if ignored. I’ve found it easier to spot against a backdrop of snowy ground. Prune off and burn or dispose of infected branches, and be sure to disinfect the pruners afterwards.

Speaking of pruning, we can remove dead, diseased, or damaged branches on any trees or shrubs any time of the year. What better time than now?

And when we’re done with our tools, why not clean, oil, and sharpen them so they’ll be in good working order? Uh-oh, is the tool shed a mess? Well, there’s another job for the ‘To Do List’! See how one project can lead to another? Now, that’s an antidote for boredom!

GARDEN WORKS: Making the best of a thaw + great tips for the die-hard greenthumb in winter

Frozen soil is no fun to work, but if there’s just a thin layer of frost, it can be done without unceremoniously slamming the soil with a pick ax.


by Emily Cates

Freeze and thaw, freeze and thaw. Such is the character of the ground this time of year. While the thought of gardening is iffy at best (without season extenders, that is), a determined gardener can still work in the dirt if the opportunity presents itself between freezes. Outrageous? Perhaps, though there are times when it is necessary to work up until the very last moment. Let’s explore the possibilities so we can make the best of these moments.

In this article, we’ll look at hand tilling, mulching, and a few potential candidates for planting. Frozen soil is no fun to work, but if there’s just a thin layer of frost, it can be done without unceremoniously slamming the soil with a pick ax. Afternoon is the best time to attempt. Forget using a rototiller though – it’s not good for the soil structure when the ground is in such a condition. By digging small beds or plots by hand with a digging fork, the possibility of last-minute plantings may be achieved. (And, wait! Don’t overlook the stragglers patiently waiting for your attention. Think dandelion coffee, mallow tea, sweet carrots, and more!) Your back and shoulders will resent this, but your garlic will appreciate it.

While the soil is in an exposed state, let’s plant and/or mulch it right away. Mulching frozen soil will hold in the cold, so we’ll try to do this at the warmest point possible in the afternoon. The cast of characters available for mulching can include straw, shredded aged leaves, pine needles, old sawdust, plain newsprint, untreated cardboard, old rugs, or blankets… you get the drift.

What in the world would anyone in their right mind be planting at such a time of year? Well, it’s a great time for working with dormant trees, shrubs, vines, bulbs, and perennials. These can be dug up, divided, potted up, moved, and/or planted. (Case in point: A friend was disappointed that she did not get a chance to plant her garlic on time, but when there was a December thaw, she seized the moment. Come harvest time the next summer, she dug up some beautiful garlic!) A huge advantage of late fall planting of trees and shrubs is that you only have to keep the soil around them moist up until the ground freezes, and then that’s it! So, water generously at planting time, and that might be all that is needed if the ground freezes soon afterward.

Speaking of planting, think about houseplants for a moment. Do they need fresh soil and bigger pots? Well, go ahead, then, and have at it. Happy, healthy houseplants = happy, healthy homeowner.

If these ideas don’t scratch that itch on your green thumbs, I don’t know what will! Ah, now, on to the seed catalogs that just arrived….

GARDEN WORKS: It’s Tree Time! – Autumn tree planting = Success


by Emily Cates

Many folks are surprised to learn that autumn is a good time for planting trees. Once a good frost has arrived and trees drop their leaves, it’s a sign that “Tree Time” has begun! To make this event a success, let’s keep a few things in mind. The following suggestions apply not only to trees, but also to shrubs, vines, and other hardy plants.

Good planting candidates should be dormant, young, and small enough to move without too much bother. (A larger-sized plant will be easier to move if it was root-pruned last season by a sharp spade plunged into the radius of soil around it.) Try to get as many roots as reasonably possible. If the roots must be pruned, cut away areas that are damaged in the process, and remember to proportionately trim branches from the top of the tree.

All right, now it’s time to plant, preferably into an already-prepared, rock-free, planting hole which was dug with more than enough room for the roots. Special emphasis should be placed on the width of the planting hole, with enough vertical depth to accommodate an equal depth to which the plant resided previously. Be sure to work loose any compacted areas in the hole. Grafted specimens can be planted with the graft at or under soil level if it is desirable for the scion to form its own roots.

Many folks are surprised to learn that autumn is a good time for planting trees. Internet photo

Careful placement of the tree and back-filling of the soil is done best when the roots are evenly spread out. If a root does not fit, do not bend it back towards the tree. Either proportionately prune the root and top, or widen the planting hole. A huge success factor is the amount of water added at this time. Don’t be afraid to make a soupy mess, the tree will love you for it! As the soil is back-filled, water adequately to the point of saturation. Gently wiggle the tree back and forth to get rid of air bubbles. Pack the soil down gently when finished back-filling, and add a nice, thick layer of mulch to keep weeds at bay and to conserve moisture. Old rotted hay or aged sawdust are good choices. Whatever is used, it should be pulled away from the base of the tree. Hold off on fertilizers at this time, but be sure to keep the soil around the tree well-watered, to the point of saturation. Check every day or two by poking around the soil, adding enough moisture, doing so until the ground freezes. This is perhaps the most important aspect of fall planting. After all, this is the moisture that will carry the plant through from freeze to thaw.

To help prevent sun scald from the winter sun, apply a coat of interior latex paint applied from the base to several inches above the snow-line. Wrapping smaller trees, shrubs, and vines with a collar of tin foil (removed in Springtime) will accomplish this and also deter uninvited four-footed, furry guests from munching away all our hard work. While we’re at it, let’s make sure to mark our plants so that the snow plow driver or Aunt Maybelle sees them.

Now it’s tea time! What better way to plant a tree than with a spot of tea?

GARDEN WORKS: Wrap your trees in tin foil – The Sure-fire way to protect your trees in wintertime… And puzzle your neighborhood!


by Emily Cates

This one is for all tin-foil hat enthusiasts, and gardeners too. If you like tin foil, this one’s for you! When winter blasts the ground with her frozen air, critters are tempted to strip a young tree bare. But do not fret — no, do not cry — for aluminum foil could be the best answer your pennies can buy!

Lest I be labeled a lunatic, there is a little light to be shed on this seemingly ludicrous proposal. Folks who grow various trees, vines, and shrubs have always known that these, when young, are susceptible to damage from rodents, rabbits, and other rascals in the wintertime. I’ve even lost a few trees myself because I didn’t wrap them in time.

Whenever the ground starts to freeze — and especially when it snows – you can be sure the feast will begin! First a bite here, then a nibble there, and before long, the whole trunk is girdled, ensuring a certain demise. Really, it’s not a question of if- it’s a matter of when it will happen. If your young trees get through the winter unscathed, then my hat’s off to you! The rest of us, though, will just have to settle with one more chore before the snow flies. Let’s find out why I’m so crazy about wrapping the trunks of young trees in tin foil.

I should note it’s not actually my idea; my mother-in-law from Germany told me her father would wrap his saplings with aluminum to protect them in wintertime. He got the idea from his father-in-law who was the Kaiser’s master gardener… so I am assuming that if this idea is good enough for a king, it’s worth sharing with you.

Yes, I will admit that you can go to a garden store and buy aesthetically-pleasing tree guards. Go ahead if it makes you feel better! I’d hate for my schemes to spoil the ambiance of your garden space. But if you’re looking for something radical and recyclable (and oh-so 50s galactic-retro), you’re in the right place.

Anyways, after all this banter, the application is refreshingly simple: Just get out a roll of foil and wrap a couple layers on the trunks of the specimens you wish to protect. The thicker the foil, the fewer layers that are needed. Mold it around snugly from the base at ground level to the anticipated snowline. That’s it! Remember to remove and recycle in springtime, and marvel at the heroic level of protection a humble roll of aluminum foil provides!

GARDEN WORKS: Winding Down – Making it count at the season’s end


by Emily Cates

The end is near – of the gardening season! The vines have shriveled, the leaves have fallen, and the grass is turning brown. Though the scene outside may have begun to look rather apocalyptic, for many gardeners there are still many activities that can be done before the snow flies and the ground freezes. Let’s take a look at a few of them, including garden clean-up, preparation for next year, and selective and strategic plantings. Since it’s actually an ideal time of year without bugs and blazing heat and humidity, let’s get to it and enjoy the outdoors.

First things first! Rule Number One at the season’s end is to clean up all debris from spent plants. That way, pests and diseases won’t have a hiding place to overwinter and an encore performance. I prefer to be as thorough as possible, sending the remains to a burn pile. Some folks like to turn poultry out to the garden at this time to help with the clean-up and to leave their own “deposits.”

With plants and weeds cleared away, I like to dig up the garden with a spading fork, paying extra attention to grubbing out unwanted roots and rhizomes. While we’re at it, why not add some organic matter? It might be a good time to clean out the coop, hutch, shed, or stable and incorporate the manure and bedding into the garden. Other amendments, such as Azomite and other supplements for the soil, can be mixed in as directed. A nice, thick mulch will keep these valuable materials from getting washed out, and will facilitate easy garden care in the springtime.

At this point, we could put the garden to bed; or, if we’d like to plant garlic – hold off on mulching until garlic is planted. Also, it’s a great time of year to plant trees! As long as there is adequate moisture in the soil from planting time until the freeze, a tree, shrub, or vine should do just fine and won’t normally need to be watered extra in the spring. Go ahead and move, transplant, plant – whatever – and make sure it get’s plenty of water.

Speaking of trees, it’s a good idea to label them and wrap their trunks to the snowline with a tree guard. (I prefer tin foil! So inexpensive, useful, and recycle-able!)

It’s the end of the gardening season for sure, but for the wise and savvy gardener, it’s just the beginning of activities and refreshing times outdoors!

GARDEN WORKS: Stampede of fun – Stomping grape juice the old-fashioned way


by Emily Cates

My eyes dart back and forth between another tub of apples waiting to be made into sauce and a shimmering colander of freshly-picked grapes. “What shall I do?” I wonder as I try hard to figure out what to do with my precious few moments of spare time. As I picture in my mind the other day when my neighbors and I got together for a grape-stomping party and how much fun it was for the kids to stomp around on the grapes to make juice, the grapes won out and the rest of my day’s activities were set.

Making grape juice is refreshingly simple and an exciting departure from the occasional drudgery that can accompany preserving jar after jar of produce in the autumn-time kitchen. From there, the juice can be enjoyed right away, left a couple days to develop effervescence, or aged further into wine or vinegar. (I’ll leave it to you to determine how you wish to proceed.) For now, though, let’s look at the joyous occasion of extracting the juice the way it has been done for ages. From the vine to the press, we’ll see how to handle grapes in a way that will produce some of the yummiest juice in all the land.

The first thing we could do, if we’re up for it, is to invite friends for a stomping party. If pressed for time, we could have the grapes already harvested; if there is time, let’s invite friends to help us harvest and hand them an extra pair of pruners. It can be a lot of fun that way, especially for kids who can see where the scrumptious juice comes from and who have a part in its production. (Of course, juice-making can be a relaxing solo endeavor as well, though I really enjoy watching the expressions people make when they smoosh grapes between their toes!)

How the fruits are harvested makes a huge contribution to the quality of the juice. I personally use whatever variety is ripe, sometimes blending different varieties to taste. Since I never bother to spray my grapes with pesticides or anything, I occasionally do find “organic” things on them we would not want to eat.

Spiders, especially, seem to enjoy spinning webs on or near grapes. Yellow jackets and ants will clue me in on to deliciously ripe fruits by their presence. And where individual grapes grow touching each other, there is a greater chance of something taking up residence in this area. With all this in mind, while harvesting, before the clusters are placed into the basket, make sure to carefully inspect each individual grape and toss any that are substandard.

Unripe, overripe, diseased and insect-ridden fruits should be discarded – preferably into a container, and tossed away from the vines for the chickens or compost pile. If the grapes are thoroughly picked over and rinsed clean, they should be in beautiful shape when ready to press.

At pressing time, place cleaned grapes into a sturdy colander set into a stock pot or something similar that is not iron, aluminum, or Teflon-coated cookware – always keeping in mind this could make a mess! Whoever stomps on the grapes must have impeccably clean feet. (While we’re at it, let’s sing/dance/ make up songs about juice-pressing!) The juice is then strained through a sieve and poured into clean glass containers of choice. Make sure everyone has a taste! Ahhh….delectable! Now you have participated in an activity that has delighted mankind from the ages of long ago.

GARDEN WORKS: ‘Tis the season for applesauce

As the cool nights awaken to crisp, breezy days, the smell of cooking applesauce fills the kitchen. That’s what this article is about, making applesauce! Many thanks to Roberta Bailey for teaching me how a while ago. I’ll share with you all a few hints if you’d like:

There’s no fancy recipe or anything. Simply use apples that are good enough on their own. I forgo adding sugar or spices, as I’m interested in the unique flavors of the fruits — especially if these flavors are particularly suit-able for sauce. (The sauce can always be doctored up later if need be.)

When I have a large quantity of apples, I tend to be particular and choose the ones that are ripe and in good shape; these are the ones that make superior sauce.

Of course, some varieties are better than others for sauce. An old tree in my backyard makes the best single-variety for canned applesauce I’ve ever tried. No one seems to know it’s name, and I call it “Dutton Gold.” While any old apple presumably could be used- the ones that cook up creamy, with the right balance of sweetness and tartness, and a hint of spice – are guaranteed to please. If you have access to the varieties Black Oxford, Cortland, Gravenstein, Northern Spy, Roxbury Russet, Sweet 16, Tolman Sweet, Wealthy or Wolf River, then by all means, make good use of them!

Drops are fine for sauce as long as they are washed well and used up quickly – preferably the day they are gathered. Some trees have the habit of dropping apples as they ripen, others drop because they are bad. I won’t pass up a good apple because of a bruise or wormhole, but I’ll make sure to inspect carefully and trim out any bad spots, staying clear of apple mold.

The advantages of tree-picked fruits are that they’re usually better than drops cosmetically and have a much wider window of storage and processing opportunities. If you’d like to make applesauce right away, then use tree-ripened (as opposed to storage) apples. Storage varieties improve their flavor while in storage, so if you prefer, you can make good apple-sauce from these in the off sea-son. Also, instead of going through the time and energy-intensive activities of canning a large amount of sauce, you could just take out a small amount of stored apples and cook up enough applesauce for a meal or two.

Depending on what’s on hand, I’ll make either a single variety or mixed sauce. I simply scrub and rinse the apples, slice them off the cores, and place them into a saucepan. To really jazz it up you can add elderberries, aronia, or other brightly-colored berries for visual appeal. I pour in just a sufficient amount of filtered water to keep them from scorching, then cook on medium until tender enough to run through a food mill or Foley. Usually I will run the pulp through a few times to really wring it out. Then I’ll heat it up again if needed and into the jars and water bath it goes for 20 minutes. That’s it!