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Ellen Barcel

The intense red berries appearing on yews in autumn are really greatly modified cones. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

As you plan your new garden consider adding one or more conifers. Conifers are trees that bear cones and have evergreen needles (actually modified leaves). Many are pyramidal in shape, meaning that they don’t usually grow into your utility lines. Since they are evergreen, they provide a year-round screen.

The cones contain the seeds for the next generation. Conifers include pines, cedars, cypresses, redwoods, spruces and yews. They are woody plants and, almost without exception, are evergreens. The main exception, the dawn redwood, loses its needles in autumn and sprouts new ones in the spring. Note, however, that not all evergreens are conifers (more about that in a future column).

Conifers were the dominant land plant until, evolutionary wise, they were overtaken by flowering plants. So, yes, conifers are older than flowering trees. It is thought that conifers were the main food of herbivorous dinosaurs. Today, the soft wood is used for lumber, furniture and paper. Even turpentine is made from the resin of conifers, mainly pine trees.

The cones of the golden deodar cedar come out green and mature within one growing season. Photo by Ellen Barcel

If you are unable to identify a particular tree, checking out the cones themselves may help you. For example, the cones of the golden deodar cedar are born upright on the branches and are just two inches long. The cones grow upright during the summer and fall to the ground in autumn. The cones of the Norway spruce are long, up to six or more inches long and slightly curved. The cones of some pines are short, round and stubby. Some cones don’t even look like the “typical” pinecone.

Since many people use cones for crafts, particularly around Christmas, growing conifers has another advantage: material for those wreaths and other craft projects. If this is your plan, make sure that the conifers you select will yield the type of craft material you want.

If you can’t grow a tree that has the specific cone you are looking for, crafts shops frequently carry them. For example, the tree with the largest cones is the Coulter pine. The cones can be 8 to 10 inches long and can weight four to 11 pounds (less when dried out). Since this pine’s natural environment is coastal California, this is one you need to buy from craft shops.

The woody long cones on the Norway spruce are distinctive. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Depending on the variety of the tree, cones can form and mature in just a single growing season (like the golden deodar cedar) or can take up to two or three years. Most conifers have both male and female cones on the same tree. The male cones are generally smaller and produce pollen while the female cones are larger and produce the seeds. If you’ve ever used a closed pinecone in a craft and it gradually opened only to release the seeds all over your table or floor, you’ve got a female pinecone.

Conifers rarely need pruning, except to remove dangerous branches or a double or triple leader at the top of a pyramidal tree. If the conifer you’ve selected is very feathery, it needs careful pruning or it will look terrible. Feather the cuts. As always, it’s best to know the final size of your mature plant so that it doesn’t take over. You should not have to spend a ton of time pruning back overgrown plants.

Again, I recommend the Audubon Society’s guide to the trees of the eastern U.S. as an excellent reference. They have color photos of not only the needles of each conifer but of the cones as well. Next week, an overview of some specific conifers.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.

Attract chickadees to your yard in the winter by filling your feeder with a mix of sunflower seeds, peanuts and cracked corn. Stock photo

By Ellen Barcel

Before the holidays I wrote a column on the Christmas Bird Count, a citizen-scientist effort to preserve and count birds, rather than hunt them as had been done in the 1800s. Now it’s time for the Great Backyard Bird Count.

Let the count begin

The GBBC will be held on Friday, Feb. 17, through Monday, Feb. 20. Billed as a “real time snapshot of where birds are,” the count helps not only the Audubon Society but the Cornell Lab of Ornithology as well. The GBBC organizers note that bird populations are in constant flux. Having people count birds in their backyard (or any location they select) does something that scientists can’t do since they are simply not enough to do the job. Last year, over 160,000 people took part in the count.

Participants count the birds they see for at least 15 minutes, or any length of time they chose and report their findings online. This makes the count a “real time” picture of what’s happening. The website for the count notes that some of the questions being studied are:

• How will the weather and climate change influence bird populations?

• Some birds, such as winter finches, appear in large numbers during some years but not others. Where are these species from year to year, and what can we learn from these patterns?

• How will the timing of birds’ migrations compare with past years?

• How are bird diseases, such as West Nile virus, affecting birds in different regions?

• What kinds of differences in bird diversity are apparent in cities versus suburban, rural, and natural areas?

You may be wondering why the GBBC takes place in February, notoriously the coldest month in the United States. The answer is that when the count first started 20 years ago, the goal was to check out the bird populations just before their spring migrations began, usually in March.

Getting started is easy. Go to www.birdcount.org and register. The website is very useful. There’s even a way online to help identify birds and details on a related photo contest. EBird, another program, is a way for Cornell Lab to keep track of bird populations throughout the entire year.

Attracting birds to the garden

Attracting birds to your garden in winter is easy. Just put out one or more bird feeders and keep them filled with seed. A heated water supply is nice, if you can manage it.

Black-eyed Susans provide seed for birds as the growing season comes to a close. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Attracting birds to the garden in late summer and autumn is just a matter of growing plants with seeds that the birds enjoy. Consider, for example, growing sunflowers. They’re beautiful annuals, come in a variety of colors and sizes, and the birds love the seeds in late summer and fall (and sometimes even into winter). Birds also enjoy all sorts of seeds, including the seeds of the black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia), purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), Liatris, Coreopsis, zinnias, marigolds, poppies and cosmos.

Note that virtually all of these flowers prefers a sunny location to grow to their full potential. Birds are also attracted by plants that produce fruit in the fall, such as the dogwood, elderberry, beautyberry and grape.

Another way to attract birds to the garden is to provide one or more birdhouses and to make sure that some brush and twigs, etc. are available in your yard for birds to use for nesting material. Keep a birdbath or two in the yard as well. Remember to change the water frequently so as not to provide a breeding place for mosquitoes.

So, as you plan next year’s garden, consider adding one or more of these flowers, which add not only lovely color to your garden but lots of nice food for the local birds. Since many birds eat insects as well as seed, attracting birds to the garden is an easy way to help keep those harmful insects in check.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850. 

Learn how to transform your yard into a wildlife-friendly habitat at one of 12 free workshops offered. Photo courtesy of Jay Gammill

By Ellen Barcel

The Maritime Explorium, a nonprofit organization based in Port Jefferson and dedicated to science-themed exhibits and activities, will be holding a very special series of workshops dedicated to helping gardeners “transform 100 square feet of your yard into a butterfly, bee and bird friendly habitat that keeps our waterways clean and clear …”

Lauren Hubbard, founding president and former executive director of The Maritime Explorium is the program director. She noted that there are a number of reasons for transforming part of your yard into a wildlife-friendly habitat, and there are many ecological benefits to using native plants.

“They provide food for pollinators as well as food for birds,” she said. It is these very pollinators that guarantee the seeds for the next generation of plants and that farmers rely on to produce our food. She noted that native plants don’t required fertilizers. This reduces the runoff of nitrogen [from chemical fertilizers] into the surrounding waters. Excess nitrogen leads to poor water quality, which for one thing affects eel grass which is a fish nursery. Excess nitrogen also increases algae in the Sound.

Hubbard added that native plants have roots that go very deep, that is, many have taproots. They need less supplemental water from the gardener and they catch runoff of excess rain. Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and other varieties of milkweed, for example, have a taproot. And, many, like the New England aster, are deer resistant. Native plants also feed native birds, who also eat many of the garden pests, insects, for example, that damage our gardens.

Each project participant registers for only one workshop, but to make the workshops and project convenient, they are spread over the next six months and are held at two locations. Those at the Flax Pond Marine Laboratory in Old Field are held on Saturdays (Jan. 28, Feb. 18, March 25, April 29, May 27 and June 24). Those at The Barn at Avalon Park and Preserve in Stony Brook (off Shep Jones Lane) will be held on Sundays (Jan. 29, Feb. 19, March 26, April 30, May 28 and June 25), all from 9 to 11:30 a.m.

Not only are the workshops free, but each project participant is reimbursed up to $50 for plants they buy to create their own butterfly, bee and bird-friendly garden if they complete the project. The workshops are open to all who are interested, but there are several requirements to participate in the project and receive the reimbursement. The piece of property you wish to transform (100 square feet, i.e., roughly 10 by 10 feet) must be within the Long Island Sound watershed (water on your street drains to the Sound as opposed to the Great South Bay and ocean). If you have a question as to whether your area is within the watershed, email LHubbard@MaritimeExplorium.org for details.

The property must then be planted with appropriate plants — a list will be provided at the workshop you attend. You are then asked share a before and after photo of the 100 square feet you have transformed.

This project is funded by a grant from the Long Island Sound Future Fund from the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. To register, go to www.eventbrite.com/e/my-yard-our-sound-nature-friendly-landscaping-workshops-tickets-31275703471.

For more details on native plants, visit The Long Island Native Plant Initiative website at www.linpi.org, which holds an annual sale of native plants.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.

Monarch butterfly caterpillar

By Ellen Barcel

Often when I’ve gone out to pick some parsley, I’ve found some parsley caterpillars on the stems. The question always becomes: When finding a caterpillar, to remove or not to remove it from the plant? As a kid, I liked playing with the little brown fuzzy ones. As a kid, I also remember my father removing tomato hornworms. So, the question is: Which, to gardeners are beneficial and which should we remove?

The two caterpillars that look the closest to me are the monarch butterfly caterpillar and the parsley caterpillar. Both feed on local plants and both turn into beautiful butterflies, a definite plus in my garden. The monarch obviously becomes the beautiful black and orange butterfly. Plant lots of butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) for its food, a native plant with beautiful orange flowers. Cultivars include white, purple and bicolor flowers in addition to the native orange.

The parsley caterpillar turns into the beautiful blue and black eastern swallowtail. Since I grow a large pot of parsley each year, I’m more than willing to share a bit with this caterpillar. But, it can be a nuisance to professional parsley farmers.

Wooly bear caterpillar

The black and brown wooly bear caterpillars (Pyrrharctia isabella) are funny. Picked up they roll up it a ball. It emerges from of its egg in the fall, freezes over winter and turns into a light brown and black-spotted tiger moth in spring. It feeds on a whole variety of foliage. According to old lore, it’s a predictor of a harsh winter if the brown strip (not all have a pronounced strip) is wide, mild if it is narrow. I’ve read that there are even wooly bear festivals with weather prognostication (move over Holtsville Hal), crafts and races.

Tomato hornworms are green with small black and white spots. Their heads are larger and they are attracted to tomatoes — a plant that they can devastate. They also like related plants like peppers, potatoes and eggplants, which are members of the nightshade family, Solanaceae.

Tomato hornworm caterpillar

The tomato hornworm moth emerges in late spring, just in time for the nice tender shoots of its host plants. Handpicking is the easiest way to get rid of them for the home gardener. When my father removed one, it was covered in white eggs — wasp eggs. He didn’t realize that the wasps would become a natural control to this pest (as it was its dinner) and quickly removed the hornworm with its eggs. For those into companion plantings, it is said that dill, basil or marigolds can be planted among your tomatoes to control these hornworms.

Outside of the gypsy moth caterpillars (a real pest), you mainly see caterpillars alone or in groups of just a few. Make sure you identify each one before removing it from your plants.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.

'Old Town Bar' by Stephen Gardner

By Ellen Barcel

The Smithtown Township Arts Council’s Mill Pond House Gallery has a new exhibit opening on Jan. 21, The Fine Art of Illustration, which runs through Feb. 19. Twenty professional illustrators will have approximately four dozen illustrations on display.

Noted Allison Cruz, executive director of STAC, “The exhibit features original artwork of fine artists who specialize in illustration. They created art in particular subjects for clients who published their artwork in books, catalogs, advertising media, gaming media, postal stamps and the list goes on and on.”

‘Jackalope’ by Dan Burr

There are many reasons for using illustrations rather than reproducing photos. One is to illustrate a theme or topic for which there are no photos, such as historical events. Another is for a situation that doesn’t exist yet, a future event or for fantasy. Illustrations can quickly and easily display an idea, sometimes much more effectively than a more complex photo. Illustrations can also include graphics such as maps, charts or logos (a real plus in advertising).

The idea for the exhibit came from Cruz. “I try to organize artist gallery opportunities that are unique to this area and try to offer gallery visitors a well-rounded snapshot of contemporary art today. I have always admired illustration art,” she said. “There will be a diversity of styles, approaches and techniques … both traditional and digital.” Traditional media in which these artists work include oils, watercolors, charcoals, textiles, pen and ink and printmaking.

‘Mighty Mole and Super Soil’ by Chad Wallace

Cruz added, “Personally I feel illustrators sometimes get the short end of the stick in the art world. The art world does not like the commercialism of the illustration world. For me, a strong work of art is a strong work of art … no matter the purpose it was created for … it takes the same good skills and elements … lighting, form, composition, color etc. to create a fine piece of art for yourself if you are an artist as it does to create it for someone else … How dull our lives would be without these designs to help bring the written word to life!”

Artist and exhibit contributor Joel Iskowitz said many works of the great masters were commissioned, such as “the Sistine Chapel and many of Rembrandt’s works. This is a great title for the show, ‘The Fine Art of Illustration,’ because I see no difference between the two,” he said. “It’s a false boundary. Both entities are the same when performed at the highest level … All artwork that serves a purpose, that conveys the story, that has content beyond the confines of the craft of art itself is artwork that will speak to people and last throughout time.”

The artists in the exhibit have a wide variety of clients. Stephen Gardner has painted the covers for books, baseball cards and even movie posters. Iskowitz has done the artwork for over 2,000 stamps for some 60 separate nations, as well as illustrating children’s books. Anita Rundles, a 2013 graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology, focuses on fashion and documentary drawing.

‘Old Town Bar’ by Stephen Gardner

Gardner, who was born in the UK, came to NYC because, “I primarily paint book covers and New York is where the work was, more work, better paid, and all of my favorite illustrators were Americans, Bernard Fuchs, Bob Peak and David Grove, to name but a few.” In NYC he became a baseball fan (the Yankees), “I would listen to the radio commentary and go to the day games that were so cheap back then. When I got the chance to do baseball paintings I kept at it, and certainly doing so many cards for Topps was a real joy. The movie poster was a real fun assignment,” as well.

Gardner added, “The paintings in the show are all part of a personal body of work I’m creating for a possible book. The project started as course work whilst I was studying for my MFA at FIT. An Illustrated Guide to New York’s Historic Bars, is the theme.”

Said Rundles, “I would say it’s difficult to break into the illustration world in general. It can be done for sure. … I’ve done some work here and there, for Dior and Versace doing events, but most of my drawings I’ve done on my own time for myself …”

‘Re-Animator with HP’ by Jeff A. Menges

Rundles has also done several large-scale murals as well as public art. “The two biggest projects I’ve done were both for the interiors of tech offices in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan … I recently did a small nonpermanent chalk mural on the 7th Avenue wall of my alma mater FIT, which is very public and still up at the moment, although eventually they will pressure wash the wall and it’ll be gone.” Rundles added, “One of the pieces included in the show is the artwork from one of the pages of a 56-page Jane Austen coloring book that I did for Abrams books last year. It was one of the best projects I’ve worked on so far in my illustration career and a great learning experience.”

Robert Felker did work for CNN. “I worked at CNN.com for eight years (2000-2008) and it was at times quite exciting. September 11, 2001 would most certainly be the most memorable! The highlight of my career there was the work I did as lead designer for our 2008 Presidential Election site. We won some Webby awards for our Primaries coverage and some of the data visualization stuff we were doing then was pretty new and exciting. It was chaotic and stressful at times, and even though in many ways it was an amazing opportunity.” Felker moved on to work for Scripps Networks Interactive, headquartered in Knoxville, Tennessee (“Where I was born”) and where he continues to work. In addition to working in oils, his favorite medium, he is also a collage artist.

‘The Tin Man’ by Anthony Freda

Iskowitz noted, “artwork done for reproduction in publishing is very democratic at heart. Philatelic and numismatic artwork is especially so because epic stories are told on these tiny ambassadors that move freely amongst civilizations not bounded by time, borders or false categorical judgments.” One of the most meaningful stamps he designed was for the United Kingdom “honoring Kofi Annan, the first sub-Saharan, a Ghanan, to rise to the level of secretary general of the United Nations. It became the stamp for the month and year in the UK. The stamp designs that were the most fun were a series of stamps which portrayed a fantasized visit to New York City by Popeye the Sailor Man. I got to depict Popeye, Olive Oyl, Bluto, etc.”

The juror for the exhibit was William Low, an award-winning painter, illustrator, author and educator, who has a reputation for using light, color and perspective and creating images those viewers find an immediate emotional connection with, who most recently designed the 2016 Forever Holiday Stamps for the U.S. Post Office.

Some of these original works in the show will be for sale. In addition, some of the artists will have prints of their work. This is a chance to see not only the work of local artists but the tremendous diversity there is in art for illustration.

The Mills Pond House is located at 660 Route 25A, St. James. The gallery is open Wednesday through Friday from 10 a.m. through 4 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. (closed holidays). A meet-the-artists reception, to which the public is invited, will be held on Saturday, Jan. 21 from 2 to 4 p.m. For further information, go to www.stacarts.org or call 631-862-6575.

By Ellen Barcel

Sometimes we just plunge into gardening and sometimes, especially if it snows outside, we’re staring at a beautiful fire in the fireplace and just pondering where do those odd plant names come from?


Be patient: The marshmallow plant generally doesn’t flower until the second year.

Ever wonder where the word “marshmallow” comes from for the delightful candy we float in hot chocolate? Well, way back when, when the treat was first concocted in ancient Egypt, it was a mixture of honey (a sweetener) and the sap of the marshmallow plant (a thickener). Read the ingredients of marshmallows today and you’ll see they say basically sugar (the sweetener), water and gelatin (a thickener), then coated with cornstarch (to keep them from sticking together).

Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) is a perennial plant found in Europe, Asia and North Africa and, as its name implies, grows in marshes. If you are interested in growing herbs, you can get the seeds online. The plant, which produces a light pink flower, grows to about three feet tall and needs a rich soil that holds moisture (remember it’s a marsh plant). It’s a perennial in U.S.D.A. zones 3 through 9 (Long Island is zone 7). You must be patient with this one as it doesn’t flower generally until the second year and may take even longer to have its roots large enough to harvest some.


Hellebores (Helleborus niger and H. orientalis) are early, herbaceous bloomers that come in a wide variety of colors from white through pinks and purples and even green. The cup-shaped flowers bend over (making it hard to photograph them, I know). Consider planting them in a raised bed so you can more easily enjoy the flowers.

Hellebores come in a variety of colors from white to pink to purple and even green.

Hellebores, also known as winter rose or Lenten rose, are not closely related to roses at all. They do well in U.S.D.A. hardiness zones 5 through 8. They’re very cold hardy — you can sometimes see them poking through late snows. However, check the variety you are planning to add to your garden as some are more cold tolerant than others.

But, where does the name hellebore come from? There’s folklore stating that the plant was used in old witchcraft to summon demons. But the name actually comes from the Greek meaning to harm food, as some varieties of hellebores are highly toxic, so I guess that is “hellish.” Other folklore, which relates to the name Christmas rose (H. niger), is that the tears of a young girl led the plant to bloom around Christmas as a gift to the Christ child.

Jacob’s ladder

Then there’s Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium caeruleum). The leaves rise along the stem, some seeing it like the biblical Jacob’s ladder to heaven in his dreams. According to Rutgers Extension, the plant is rarely bothered by deer, a plus on Long Island, but no plant is deer proof if they are hungry enough. It’s also somewhat drought tolerant, another plus, and shade tolerant. The bell-shaped flowers can be white, pink, blue or even yellow — take your pick.

Jacob’s ladder is rarely bothered by deer.

Like hostas, Jacob’s ladder prefers a semi-shady to shady location since it is a small woodland plant. It can burn in strong sunlight. Make sure the soil is rich as a woodland’s might be. It prefers cooler weather and may need to be cut back in the heat of summer. P. reptans is a creeping Jacob’s ladder and native to North America.

I’ve read that cats really like Jacob’s ladder, as they like catnip, so if you have a lot of stray cats around you may need some form of protection for them, the plants that is, not the cats. An herbaceous perennial, it can be divided every few years. This is one where the seeds can still be planted in late autumn and will germinate the following spring.

Solomon’s seal

Solomon’s seal, (Polyonatum odoratum) also known as King Solomon’s seal is native to North America, does well in full or part shade and blooms May to June. The herbaceous perennial is in the asparagus family and a relative of lily of the valley.

Solomon’s seal is a part of the asparagus family and is a relative of lily of the valley.

As a woodland plant, it is relatively small, just a foot or two in height. In woodlands trees shed their leaves, which decay to form a rich compost, so keep this in mind when growing it in Long Island’s very sandy soil. Add compost to your shade planting bed (or let your leaves compost themselves under your trees in the shade). It does well in U.S.D.A. zones 5 through 9 and can be grown in more acidic soil than the others above, with a pH of 5.0 to 7.

Its scientific name refers to the “many knees” found on the underground rhizome. But where does the common name come from? Some noted the depressed spots on the underground roots and thought it looked like the royal king’s seal. Others thought a cross section of the stem resembled a Hebrew character.

Consider interspersing your Solomon’s seals with some nice, hardy ferns. Since they spread by the rhizomes as well as reseed themselves, you can develop a really nice bed. As they are somewhat slow growers, the seedlings will take a few years to bloom, but established beds can be divided in early spring.

The first three of the above plants do best in a soil pH near neutral (7) — only slightly acidic to a bit alkaline. Consider liming your soil if it is very acidic.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.

Count birds at your feeder this winter like this male and female cardinal. Stock photo

By Ellen Barcel

There are two bird counts in which gardeners frequently like to take part. One is the current one, the Christmas bird count, and the other is the backyard bird count in February (Feb. 17 to 20). Let’s take a look at the Christmas one, and then later in February I’ll go over the backyard bird count.

A catbird enjoys a snack of mealworms at a backyard feeder. Stock photo

The Audubon Society’s 117th Christmas bird count is currently underway. Billed as “the nation’s longest running citizen science bird project,” it goes from Dec. 14 through Jan. 5th. Yes, this is a good thing to do to help science, conservation and the environment, but it’s also a fun way of entertaining the youngsters during their holiday break from school. If you’re unsure of some bird identification, beginners are definitely welcome and are paired with an experienced birder.

All counts take place on one day, but each counter can take part in a number of counts on different days in different areas if they wish. If your home is in one of the areas that the CBC is being done, you can actually do it from your own backyard. While a donation to the Audubon Society would be nice, participation in the CBC is free.

As for the history of the bird count, back before conservation efforts began, many people took part in what was known as the Christmas Side Hunt, where people would go out and shoot as many birds as possible. “Whoever brought in the biggest pile of feathered (and furry) quarry won.” Yes, now we’re appalled at the thought.

In 1900, Frank M. Chapman, an early Audubon Society member and officer, started a new holiday tradition to replace the Side Hunt. It was called the Christmas Bird Census. Instead of destroying wildlife, the society would count them. The data helps scientists keep track of bird populations and health in general, which of course reflects on the environment in which we all must live.

The Audubon Society’s website is easy to use, to get further information, to sign up and to enter the data you collected. There’s even an extensive bibliography for those who want to read more about the various birds of North America. Go to www.audubon.org. Note, for the birder on your holiday list, consider a membership in the society or a donation in the form of a symbolic bird adoption. It’s a nice present and a nice way to support the society. Remember, in your future garden planning, to include plants that draw birds to your back yard. You’ll be rewarded many times over.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.

When feeding the birds, use a 'patio mix, seeds without shell, so there is less mess. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

Winter’s on its way, despite the really mild autumn we’ve had. And yes, as of this writing, I still have geraniums and roses blooming. Here are some things to remember for the cold days and nights ahead.

Predictions for this winter include a milder (but still cold) and, according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac for 2017, snowy winter. If you haven’t done so already, check out your trees for damaged and dead branches, which can easily come down in a storm especially an ice storm. Call in an arborist as needed.

Remove heavy wet snow from bent branches if can be done safely. Photo by Ellen Barcel
Remove heavy wet snow from bent branches if can be done safely. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Remove heavy wet snow from shrubs if possible to do it safely (safety for yourself first and then the plant), so that branches don’t break after storms. And yes, remove any icicles if possible, but not branches coated with ice. You’re more likely to damage the plant trying to remove the ice. Most plants survive icing well. Come spring trim any broken branches as needed.

Another prediction I’ve seen is that despite the last few rains, we may have a time of drought coming up. If the ground is not frozen and there hasn’t been much rain, you need to water accordingly, especially newly planted ones. Also, you may need to wrap some evergreens, again especially newly planted ones, to protect from dry wind.

Remember to water periodically (usually once a month) any potted tender plants, like fig trees, you’ve stored over winter in an unheated garage or basement. You’ll know when to bring them out in the spring when you see the green buds starting to open.

Salt is a big danger to plants. Some agricultural fields in the Netherlands that were flooded during World War II with salt ocean water did not produce for many years after. So, when you select plants that will grow near the roadside, make sure they are somewhat salt tolerant so that salt spray from the road in winter doesn’t damage your plants. Holly and crepe myrtle are just two of these plants. But your grasses may not like the salt, so when spreading an ice melt on your driveway look for one that doesn’t harm plants. Note, there are also ice melts that are safe on dogs’ paws. If your regularly walk your dog in a certain area that needs de-icing, looking for the appropriate one.

If you are so near the coast that your property floods with severe storms, grow your least salt-tolerant plants in containers that can be moved to a safer location when such storms are predicted.

If you feed the birds during the cold months, you may want to use a variety known as “patio mix,” seeds without shell. There’s less mess. Also, don’t put out so much bird seed that a lot falls on the ground and isn’t eaten, or you’ll find the excess seed sprouting come spring, making more weeds to pull. Been there, done that.

If you have a living Christmas tree (one with roots attached), move it outside as soon as possible after the holidays. Keep it watered during times of drought. Plant it as soon as the ground is workable in late winter or early spring. When buying a living tree, check to make sure you don’t plant a tender one outside, like the holiday-decorated Norfork Island pine, which can only be grown as a house plant in a climate zone (with summer’s outdoors).

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.

‘Rush’s Lancers’ by Winslow Homer, 1886; Courtesy of the Mort Kunstler Collection. Image from The Heckscher Museum of Art

By Ellen Barcel

Two related exhibits have opened at the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington: Normal Rockwell and Friends: American Illustrations from the Mort Künstler Collection (through March 5, 2017) and Mort Künstler: The New Nation (through April 2, 2017). Related in theme (American artists and subjects), related in exhibit time and related through American artist Mort Künstler himself, the duel exhibits complement each other perfectly.

Norman Rockwell and Friends

Norman Rockwell’s ‘A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world!’ (aka ‘World of Charles Dickens’), 1937; Mort Künstler Collection. Courtesy Norman Rockwell Family Agency. Image from The Heckscher Museum of Art
Norman Rockwell’s ‘A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world!’ (aka ‘World of Charles Dickens’), 1937; Mort Künstler Collection. Courtesy Norman Rockwell Family Agency. Image from The Heckscher Museum of Art

Mort Künstler, an American artist himself, has long collected the works of late 19th century and early 20th century artists/illustrators. The current exhibit at the Heckscher (Norman Rockwell and Friends) highlights Künstler’s collection and is unique because this is the first time these works are being shown to the public. The 75 pieces on display, such a broad variety of artists, represent 39 artists including Edwin Austin Abbey, Howard Chandler Christy, Dean Cornwell, Charles Dana Gibson, George Gross, Winslow Homer, J.C. Leyendecker, Thomas Lovell, Maxfield Parrish, Howard Pyle and, of course, Norman Rockwell.

In a recent phone interview, Künstler remarked that of the many artists he collected, he knew several personally. Thomas Lovell was “almost like a mentor” to him and George Gross “really was my mentor,” adding, “I did have the pleasure of talking to Norman Rockwell on the phone.”

Künstler’s collecting goes back to at least 1972 “or earlier,” he commented, over four decades of seeking out the best illustrators of the early 20th century. Why these particular artists? “I liked the work,” he said, from when he was in art school. Künstler stated that many of the artists were members of the Society of Illustrators, a professional organization founded in 1901. Gibson was one of its early presidents. Included in the nine founding artists were N.C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle, both in the current exhibit. The heyday of the society’s art shows was during the Roaring Twenties and Great Depression of the 1930s.

“All were illustrators,” said Künstler. “There was no TV (back when they were working). The only visuals that people got were out of magazines and newspapers. Visually, they were the ones who created the fashions. Charles Dana Gibson was the creator of the Gibson girl.” She was recognized as the personification of feminine beauty in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “The illustrators were idolized like movie stars. They reached out to thousands of people. They were the superstars of that era.”

Why the exhibit now? “I got to know Michael Schantz, executive director at the Heckscher Museum, well. He came to lunch, visited, loved the collection. … It was time to let it go out,” said Künstler.

“One of the extraordinary things about this is that both the Künstlers allowed us to take everything off their walls, from the house. It was just an extraordinary gesture. It speaks so well of the relationship between this museum and the Küntslers,” said Schantz. “I met with him quite a few times. I recorded him for hours and hours — a record of the interesting stories, the hunt for the works, where he found them and how he found them.” He added that some of these stories are related in the information cards in the exhibit.

Mort Künstler: The New Nation

The museum also has a related exhibit, Mort Künstler: The New Nation, featuring Küntsler’s most recent work including his paintings of the early years of the United States. Künstler, who is particularly known for his Civil War paintings, reflected that his interest in American history came about because “almost all of my work was commissioned,” and frequently those commissions related to American history.

Above, ‘Washington’s Crossing: McKonkey’s Ferry, Dec. 26, 1776,’ 2011; oil on canvas, 33 × 50 in., from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Suozzi. Image courtesy of The Heckscher Museum
Above, ‘Washington’s Crossing: McKonkey’s Ferry, Dec. 26, 1776,’ by Mort Künstler, 2011; oil on canvas, 33 × 50 in., from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Suozzi. Image courtesy of The Heckscher Museum

“My book, ‘The New Nation’ [‘The New Nation, The Creation of the United States in Paintings and Eyewitness Accounts’] will act as the catalogue of the show,” said Künstler. “I did some of the work for the bicentennial in 1976,” then did additional paintings, he said. The book, with text by American military historian Edward G. Lengel and David H. Fischer, will be available at the museum. Künstler, who has published 10 books of his art work, now also has a children’s book series as well, “based on my paintings.” Themes of the four books include the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Wild West and World War II. The works are written by well-known historians (particularly James “Bud” Robertson) for children ages 10 to 15.

Howard Shaw, president and director of the Hammer Galleries in Manhattan, has known and worked with Künstler for more than 25 years. “Mort is considered the country’s leading historical artist,” said Shaw. “Not only has he incredible technique but he does enormous research so that even the smallest detail is accurate.” Shaw went on to relate an incident where Künstler was researching information with a number of historians for a painting he was doing. Only one was able to get back to him “one or two hours before the opening of the show. With the painting on the gallery wall, Mort repainted that particular part of an insignia,” so that it would be historically correct.

Shaw observed the joy that goes into Künstler’s work. “He told me if it ever feels like work, ‘I’ll stop doing it.’ Over 70 years he hasn’t felt he’s had a job.”

A gallery tour and talk with Mort Künstler will be held on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the museum (inclement weather date is Jan. 19). Members are invited to attend free, for nonmembers there is a $5 charge.

The Heckscher Museum of Art, is located at 2 Prime Ave., Huntington. The museum is open Wednesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (closed Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day). For further information, visit www.heckscher.org or call 631-351-3250.

By Ellen Barcel

It’s getting to be that time — the time of year when the stores are filled with irresistible holiday plants. Before you make that purchase or purchases, there are some things to remember.

First, little kids and pets have a very bad habit of putting everything they see in their mouths. While some plants are safe, others are toxic. Make sure that your children and grandchildren as well as your dogs and cats can’t get at your holiday plants. A trip to the ER should not be part of your holiday experience.

Second, if you are treating that plant as you would a bouquet of flowers, that is, a decoration for a brief time, then of course put those plants where they do the best for the décor. If, on the other hand, you wish to keep your holiday plants growing year round, then you must treat them kindly. Put them where they will get enough light. Remember to water them accordingly. Don’t overwater any cactus plant, for example, but don’t let your poinsettias dry out.

Norfork Island pines decorated for Christmas. Photo by Ellen Barcel
Norfork Island pines decorated for Christmas. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Some plants need enough humidity, like the Norfolk Island pine, which is so popular this time of year. Frequently decorated with sparkles and red bows, it makes a nice alternative to a full-sized Christmas tree. I’ve seen them in the supermarket, moderately priced, for about three feet tall. Add a few of your own decorations and you have a really nice holiday tree. I kept one growing for a number of years before the dry house air in winter finally did it in.

If you are planning to have amaryllis blooming for the holidays, you need to have that bulb planted approximately four to six weeks before the desired bloom date. While most are a bright red, there are white, pink and variegated varieties. To keep them blooming for the next year, remove the spent flower but keep the green leaves growing. You need to fertilize the plant as it is growing, since this year’s bloom is based on what the grower did the year before you bought it. The bulb will then go dormant for a number of months. If you’ve treated the bulb right, it should start to grow and bloom again in November of next year.

Look for poinsettias with the yellow center flowers still closed. They will last longer. Photo by Ellen Barcel
Look for poinsettias with the yellow center flowers still closed. They will last longer. Photo by Ellen Barcel

If you choose a poinsettia, make sure that the yellow flowers (the tiny part in the center of the “bloom”) are tightly closed, with no pollen on the red petals (actually bracts, modified leaves). This means that the flower has not really bloomed yet and will last longer in your house. If you see that the yellow flowers are open and that the pollen is out, it means the plant is an older one and will not last as long in your house.

Yes, you can try to keep a poinsettia year to year, but my experiences have not been positive ones. I treat them as I would a bouquet of flowers, nice for a decoration but to be discarded when the bloom fades. If you get one of those “doctored up” varieties, sprayed a different color or sprinkled with glitter, and are able to keep it growing year after year, you will, of course, just get the plain red bracts in future years.

Christmas cactus need dark and cool night temperatures to form buds. Photo by Ellen Barcel
Christmas cactus need dark and cool night temperatures to form buds. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Christmas cacti are much easier to keep growing year after year. They don’t mind the dry air so common in most winter houses. To get the cacti to rebloom year after year, put them in a totally dark room (or closet) each night for about two months before Christmas. The dark, the experts say, will trigger the formation of flowers. It has been my experience that as long as I keep my cacti in a very cool room (for me, my dining room) during the autumn months, the buds form. Of course, my dining room tends to be a fairly dark (but not totally dark) room in the fall.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.