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Ellen Barcel

Pinecones on a Colorado blue spruce add color to a drab winter garden. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

You’re probably wondering why I’m writing a column on winter interest in the garden in May, especially after the brutally cold and snowy winter we’ve just gone through. Shouldn’t I be touting spring?

Well, yes and no. If you looked at your garden this past winter and were disappointed in the overall effect, you need to think about what you are planting now to be able to look out your windows next winter and love what you see.

To create winter interest in the garden, think color, shape and texture. Let’s start with color. So much of the garden in winter is brown, so, look for plants that are not brown. That immediately brings to mind evergreens, whether you’re thinking of trees like pines, spruce, cedars etc. or shrubs like euonymous. Each of these brings beautiful green color. To make this even more spectacular, consider interspersing some evergreens with those that are tinged with gold. Now, not only do you have these beautiful green and gold colors in the garden, but, when it snows, you have a lacy, Christmas-card scene. Don’t forget holly since it holds its deep green leaves and much of its red berries throughout the snowy season.

But, there are other color possibilities. Recently, driving out on the East End, amid all the brown, bare tree trunks was a beautiful red specimen. It was a red twig dogwood, and the color stood out from blocks away.

By the way, there’s also yellow twig dogwood. Red twig dogwood has white flowers in spring, it’s drought tolerant as well as heat tolerant, so, should do well in unusually cold winters or hot summers. Yes, you can cut some of the red twigs for winter decorations in the house. The more sun, the brighter the colors will be, but it does grow in partial shade.

So, now we have green, yellow, gold and red. What about blue? Well, you could plant some Colorado blue spruce. One of its added bits of winter interest is the beautiful pinecones these, as well as other conifers, have.

For texture, look at tree bark. Sycamore trees have whitish bark that peels, creating an interesting pattern on the trunk. Oak leaf hydrangeas also have exfoliating bark as does paperbark maple. Note that the beautiful white birch (paper birch) doesn’t do too well on Long Island. A native of North America it is rated for hardiness zones 3 through 6 (Long Island is warmer at zone 7). While you will occasionally see one growing well here, it is the exception rather than the rule.

Unusual or twisted vines on a trellis or something like the twisted Harry Lauder’s walking stick create beautiful designs in the garden, especially when snow melts and refreezes, creating really cool icicles on them.

Shape is another way of bringing winter interest into the garden. Consider pruning some of your small evergreens into topiaries. They really stand out that way.

Ornamental grasses are beautiful in winter. They blow in the winter wind and become covered with not only snow but ice in the colder months.

So, as you enjoy the warm gardening days ahead, think about what will make your garden stunning next January.

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

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Spring flowering, creeping phlox can be seen cascading over rocks on a garden wall. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

Most people know that roses need a lot of sun to really thrive and put out lots of gorgeous flowers. Grasses, too, need enough sun to do their best. Hydrangeas need a lot of water — after all the name, hydrangea, literally means “water vessel.” On the other hand, cacti need very little water. One of the easiest ways of killing a cactus is by overwatering. Some plants, like blueberries, rhododendron and azaleas need a very acidic soil. But, are there plants that seem to do well everywhere? Actually, yes.

Phlox is an interesting genus of plants. Some are very small and are matlike. Others are tall. Some bloom in spring, some in summer and some in fall. Different varieties will grow in almost any environment — a very ubiquitous plant.

Phlox have been popular with home gardeners for over 100 years. The vast majority of phlox are native to North America. Of the over 60 species there are more than 100 varieties. Wow! While some grow in an alpine region others thrive in a prairielike environment.

There are some commonalities. For example, virtually all have flowers with five petals, sort of star shaped, that is. Another is the color of the flowers: white, pink, blue and purple predominate. They are fragrant, do well in hardiness zones 4 to 8 (although there are some that do well in a colder climate) and prefer a well-drained soil.

Most phlox used in gardens are perennials. They can be divided in spring or fall if the bed becomes overcrowded. There are basically two types available for the home gardener: the spring blooming creeping phlox, which are stunning in rock gardens and cascading down walls, and the summer flowering tall phlox.

Generally, phlox prefer full sun, but creeping phlox does well in some shade.

In many of my columns, I’ve noted where plants prefer an acidic, neutral or alkaline soil, but, phlox seem to be one of those plants that do well in almost any soil pH, as the Old Farmer’s Almanac says (6.0 to 8.0). And yes, they will do well even in soil with a lower pH, particularly the creeping phlox, which can tolerate levels as low as 5.7. This is particularly useful for the home gardener, who can plant phlox in with or near other plants that have very specific requirements.

But there are things to consider when planting them. Phlox can be prone to powdery mildew. Look for varieties that are noted as disease-resistant and plant where there is good air circulation.

I’ve seen contradictory information on whether phlox are deer-resistant. Some sources say yes, some say no.

So, you’ll have to see for yourself and consider a deer repellent of some sort if the deer in your area decide yours are very tasty.

Because there are so many different varieties of phlox that are adapted to so many different environments, it is particularly important with phlox to read and follow the information provided either in the gardening catalog or on the tag that comes with the plants you select. This way, you’ll be able to get the effect you desire.

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

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Peaches grow so easily on Long Island, this volunteer has thrived for years. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

One of the nice things about gardening on Long Island is our very acidic soil. Did I say that was one of the nice things? Yes, actually, if you are fond of certain fruits.

Soil pH measures how acidic or alkaline your soil is. The scale ranges from 0 to 14 with 7 being neutral. Below 7 is considered acidic with 4.5 to 5 being very strongly acidic. Much of mine tests out in this range. Above 7 is alkaline. How acidic or alkaline soil is determines how certain needed nutrients are taken up by different plants.

If your soil is very acidic, in the 4.5 to 5.5 range, then blueberries top the list. Blueberries are tasty and considered a nutrition powerhouse filled with phytonutrients and high in fiber. Blueberry bushes come in a number of varieties including high bush (tall) and low bush (shorter). The white spring flowers give way to the berries in summer. To prolong the picking season, select several varieties that range in maturity date from early to medium to late. Yes, consider netting as the berries begin to ripen since birds do love them, too.

Apple trees do well in Long Island’s soil, even down to a pH of 5.0. Photo by Ellen Barcel
Apple trees do well in Long Island’s soil, even down to a pH of 5.0. Photo by Ellen Barcel

In addition to the wonderful fruit they yield, the plants make a great living hedge. Since blueberry bushes are deciduous, the living hedge does not provide much screening in winter.

Bilberry and cranberry also do well in this very acidic range, 4.5 to 5. Cranberries were once raised commercially on Long Island. Cranberry Bog Preserve in Riverhead is located where this commercial operation was in business from the late 1890s to the 1930s. Local women were employed to harvest the berries. If you decide to try to raise cranberries, remember that lots of water is needed.

Other fruits that do well in acidic soil include rhubarb (5.5 to 6), raspberries (5.5 to 6.2), wineberries, which are an invasive variety of raspberries from Asia, and strawberries (5.5 to 6.5).

A plant that may need some lime is the grape vine. While it does well in a variety of soil conditions, the ideal soil pH is 5.5 to 6.8, lower for American vines, higher for some of the imports. If you soil is below the 5.5, then add lime. Different varieties of grapes do better in different soil pH levels, so read the tag that comes with your plants or do a bit a research on the specific variety you have selected.  Like most of the fruits mentioned above, grapes prefer a well-drained soil.

When it comes to fruit trees, the apple does very well in acidic soil, growing well even down to 5.0, which is considered strongly acidic.  Dwarf and semidwarf varieties mean that the home gardener can grow one or more even on a small piece of property and can easily harvest the fruit come fall.

Peaches do well in pH 6.5 (slightly acidic). If your soil is very acidic, you may need to add some lime. Two trees that “volunteered” in my yard are filled with beautiful pink flowers, which is why I keep the trees since the peaches themselves aren’t really great.

Another tree that yields fruit and does well on Long Island is the mulberry, pH range 5.5 to 6.5, moderately acidic. There are some negatives to the mulberry tree, however. It’s a “messy” tree in that the fruit and juice can easily stain anything with which they come in contact. And large limbs can easily break off from the tree. So, while it easily grows here, think about the negatives versus the positives before planting it.

All in all, many different varieties of fruit do well here in Long Island’s acidic soil. Remember to add fertilizer to you soil. Yes, compost is ideal, but if you prefer chemical fertilizers, read the package carefully to make sure it is formulated to help the fruits you are growing. Always follow manufacturer’s directions.

Also remember, that if you do need to add lime, depending on the variety it can take over a year or more for the lime to break down in the soil and be available for your plants to use. Again, read the package carefully.

So plant your favorite fruit tree or bush, sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labor.

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

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Small, colorful vases are perfect to use in rooting cuttings. The purple vase, back right, was from the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

Once a gardener finds a really special plant, one that he or she wants more of, lots more of, the gardener begins to think about how to propagate that plant. Seeds are always a possibility — it’s worth a try — but many seeds do not breed true especially if the mother plant is a hybrid.

If you want a genetic clone — that is, an exact duplicate — you need to propagate the plant vegetatively. Wood cuttings are possible but require some work and care. Isn’t there an easier way to get more of what you have already?

Rooting cuttings in water is truly the easiest way to propagate plants. However, not all plants can be rooted in water.

The houseplants that can be propagated in water include philodendron, pothos and other viney plants. Herbs such as pineapple sage and all variety of mints can also be rooted in water. When the weather gets cold outside consider taking cuttings from begonias, coleus, impatiens, sweet potato vine and even geraniums to overwinter them in water inside. I’ve been told, though can’t verify myself, that African violet leaves will also root in water.

Shrubs hat need a lot of water, such as willows, including pussy willow, will also root easily in water. Some plants, like euonymous, will root just about anywhere. I even had one root behind the shutter on my house against the cedar shakes. Removing it carefully, I was able to plant it in the soil where it is still growing.

Some general guidelines include:
* Select a small container to hold the cuttings. A small colorful vase is particularly attractive when the sun hits the glass.
* Use room temperature water.
* Change the water periodically, say once a week or sooner if it becomes cloudy.
* Keep the water level at the same height from week to week.
* Do not add fertilizer to the water.
* Set the rooting container where it will get partial sun but not get excessively hot if its summer.
* If the end of the cutting turns brown or mushy, it’s beginning to rot. Discard this cutting and try again.
* When enough roots have formed and you move the plant to soil, make sure you use good quality potting soil appropriate for the type of plant if it’s going to be a container plant.
* Use a completely clean planter to help prevent the spread of disease to the new plant.
* Make sure you keep the new plant’s soil wet enough during the transition period. Remember, it’s been growing in pure water for weeks or even months.

Woody stems are more difficult to root in water. You usually need to use rooting hormone and put them in soil. But, if you notice tiny roots forming along the stem of a woody plant, gently bend the stem over to the ground or a pot of soil. Keep the stem pressed against the soil by weighting it down with a rock or brick. This works very well with hydrangeas. If I do this in the spring or summer, I leave the new plant attached to the mother plant until the following spring when I cut it free of the mother plant and dig it up and move it to its new home.

Cactus plants are particularly easy to propagate, but not in water. Take a broken piece, put the end in potting soil designed for cacti, water periodically but not excessively and soon you’ll have a new plant.

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

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While most pumpkins are fairly large, tiny varieties, such as the white and orange ones above, make cute decorations for the dinner table. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

It will soon be time to plant your vegetable garden. Do you sometimes feel that you plant the “same old, same old?” The same tomatoes? The same green beans? If so, why not try some really unique veggies along with the traditional ones? Some say they’re ugly while others call them cute. They’re the veggies that differ from the norm. Here’s a sampling, but you can find lots more in all the seed catalogues that are arriving.

Cauliflower
When you think of cauliflower, you usually think of a snowy white head of florets surrounded by green leaves. But, have you considered Graffiti Hybrid, which has purple florets, or Cheddar Hybrid, which is the color of cheddar cheese and a good source of vitamin A. A really unique looking cauliflower is Veronica Romanesco Hybrid, which has a green head, and a sweet nutty flavor that is milder than most cauliflowers. The florets are spiraled and resemble a bunch of hens and chicks. Yes, I really want to try this one myself.

Radishes
Most radishes have a red skin and a white interior. This fast-growing crop likes cool weather, so plant early for a spring crop or late in summer for a fall crop. But a really unique radish, Watermelon, reverses the colors. It has a white and green skin and pinkish-red interior. It grows bigger than most — two to four inches. The flavor is said to be mild with a bit of sweetness.

Pumpkins
Nothing says autumn like pumpkins, whether for pies or jack-o’-lanterns. But if you want to grow some eye-catchers, consider any one of a number of bumpy pumpkins. There’s Red Warty Thing, Goosebumps Hybrid, Galeux d’Eysines and Knucklehead Hybrid. Yes, they’re edible, but these eerie pumpkins are ideal to be turned into Halloween jack-o’-lanterns, warty faces and all. Tiny, smooth-skinned pumpkins include Jack Be Little, which is so small it fits in the palm of your hand. If you’re planning on entering a contest for the biggest, try Prizewinner Hybrid, which has been known to reach up to 400 pounds.

Tomatoes
Say tomato and most people will think of the round, orangy-red fruit that goes perfectly with bacon and lettuce to form a BLT sandwich. But, tomatoes, like so many other fruits, come in different colors such as yellow — Yellow Pear and Lemon Boy Hybrid — or blue — Indigo Blue Beauty and Indigo Apple. Tomato sizes range from tiny to enormous. Ugly Ripes are wrinkled but delicious.

Yes, there are many other veggies and fruits that have varieties that differ from the norm. There’s bicolored corn and Golden Detroit, a pale orange beet. Read your gardening catalogues and try at least one or two unique veggies this year.

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

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Above, a goldenrain tree in early summer with bright green-colored pods. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

Have  you ever walked or driven past a plant you just loved — one you might even want to add to your garden, but you don’t know what it is? Maybe no one’s around to ask? Yes, identifying an unknown plant can be challenging.

For a number of years, I had seen a unique tree with yellow spring flowers followed by seed pods which start out green but then turn a brownish color, resembling paper lanterns. Each pod contains several seeds. I asked a number of gardening friends, yet no one was able to identify it. Finally I resorted to the web, and in just a few minutes, quickly found the answer.

The tree was a goldenrain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata), a native of Asia. It is also called Pride of India or China tree. The small- to medium-sized tree makes a nice specimen or ornamental tree and is grown in home gardens primarily for that purpose. The mature tree is about as wide as it is tall. In autumn, the leaves turn bright yellow. It even has winter interest as some of the “lanterns” will remain on the tree for a while.

While some consider the goldenrain tree invasive, particularly in Florida, it is not on Suffolk County’s banned or management lists. The management list consists of plants which, while currently legal to sell or propagate, are considered somewhat invasive and therefore it is recommended they not be planted. The low maintenance tree does well in hardiness zones 5 to 9, meaning that an unusually cold winter, like we’ve had the last two winters, should not be a problem. The moderate to quickly growing tree prefers full sun. It even tolerates a bit of a dry spell, meaning that Long Island’s occasional droughts will not affect the tree. It is somewhat salt tolerant, so should do well near roads where winter salt spray hits nearby plants, and tolerates some pollution. All in all, it’s a sturdy tree with few pests and year-round interest.

It does well in varying soil pH levels, from strongly acidic, 5.1 to 5.5, through mildly alkaline, 7.8. This means that you can plant it in areas where you have “rhodies” and azaleas, which require very acidic soil, or in a lawn where you find yourself liming the soil to make it more alkaline. As with all trees, keep the grass away from the trunk so that lawn mowers and “Weedwackers” don’t damage the bark.

Another identification needed was of a “really cool” hanging plant a gardening friend of mine saw at a recent home and garden show. I recognized it immediately as a variety of sedum, but which one? Another quick online search gave the name — Sedum morganianum. It’s a flowering perennial plant, a succulent, note the blue-green fleshy leaves, native to Mexico and Honduras.

This sedum can be grown outdoors in late spring, summer and early fall, but once it gets really cold, needs to be grown indoors as a houseplant. Don’t overwater — sedum can rot in soil that isn’t well drained. It propagates easily from broken pieces (the plant is somewhat fragile when touched), just like most cacti. If grown indoors, it likes a sunny location but not excessive heat. It’s also known as burro’s tail because of its unusual shape. Like most succulents, it needs good drainage.

As this plant can get very large, make sure to put it in a sturdy container. A hanging basket is best or a large pot on a pedestal, both of which show off its training nature. Dark red flowers appear April to July.

To track down an unidentified plant using the web, type the description into your search engine. I used “photo trees with seed pods” and up popped dozens of possibilities. I was then easily able to pick out the goldenrain tree. For the sedum, I typed in “photo sedum hanging basket.”

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

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Hydrangea macrophylla. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

Many Long Islanders have noted the change in Long Island’s climate. Old photos of the Great South Bay, the Long Island Sound and Peconic Bay taken during winters past show the amount of ice around. I’ve even seen an old photo that shows a car being driven on Peconic Bay in the early 1900s.

That was a long time ago, and despite the last two winters’ unusual cold and snow, we haven’t seen that much ice in years. So, yes, our island is definitely in a period of warmer winters. Officially, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Hardiness Zone map puts us squarely in zone 7, where in the past we were sort of borderline.

How does the gardener deal with Long Island’s climate? And, what do microclimates mean?

First, microclimates refer to a small area, within a larger one, that has different temperature, rainfall or humidity than the rest of the area. A friend of mine planted some gladiolus in an area near to her house, with two side walls, facing south. These are not hardy glads, but the regular, old-fashioned kind that need to be lifted each fall and stored. Yet, year after year, her glads return, even through unusually cold winters. She has a microclimate, one that is substantially warmer than the rest of her garden.

In our area, Easter lillies, above, should be mulched or lifted in the fall. Photo by Ellen Barcel
In our area, Easter lillies, above, should be mulched or lifted in the fall. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Microclimates can be one-half to one zone either warmer or colder than the surroundings. Another gardener of my acquaintance had a flowering shrub that she moved and moved repeatedly, until she found a location that was ideal for it. There’s a fruit orchard out east that can grow one type of tender tree in a small hollow but nowhere else. And we all know that the pine barrens tend to be colder than the rest of the island.

So, as a gardener, you may need to:

* Move certain plants more than once until you find the ideal location. I had to move a hydrangea several times until I found the perfect, shady and moist spot in my garden for it to thrive.

* Put plants only rated for zone 7 and warmer in a protected area. This could be behind a fence or in a little nook near the house, in a warmer microclimate. Remember that the past two winters we’ve had unusually cold weather.

* Make sure to mulch any plants in fall that are iffy, since they might not make it through a cold winter. Easter lilies, for example, are rated for zone 7 and warmer, yet frequently do not make it through Long Island winters. Lift them in fall or mulch them to make sure they survive.

* Grow iffy plants in containers that can be moved into a shed or garage over winter for a bit of added protection.

* Replace plants that bloom on old wood with rebloomers or everbloomers. For example, Hydrangea macrophylla, the old-fashioned kind, booms on old wood. Most of us saw few flowers last growing season and can expect very few this season as a result of the cold. So replace the older ones with Endless Summer or another rebloomer so that even if old wood dies back to the ground, new wood will produce beautiful flowers later in the season.

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

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