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Ellen Barcel

Monarda

By Ellen Barcel

Lemon thyme is a very effective mosquito repellent.

Before the invention of the bug zapper and the mosquito lures, people relied on plants, such as citronella, to keep mosquitoes away. Personally, I hate bug zappers and mosquito lures not only use electricity but have to be emptied of dead bugs.

So, why not return to more natural ways of keeping mosquitoes away? Why not surround your porch, patio or deck with pots of beautiful plants that are known to repel the little buggers? Why not spread them around to keep the yard mosquito free? Many are actually plants you are growing already but need strategic placement to be the most effective. One of the interesting aspects of mosquito control is that many of the plants mosquitoes hate due to their scent are ones people just love. As a bonus, many are hardy in our area; so plant once and they return year after year.

Citronella grass

Citronella grass

Let’s start with citronella. Citronella grass (Cymbopogon nardus and C. winteriannus) is used as an herb in Asian cooking but is best known in our area as a mosquito repellent. Citronella grass forms clumps and can get quite tall, up to 6 feet tall. The plant is a perennial in U.S.D.A. zones 10 to 12 (Long Island is zone 7). So, yes, you would need to replant it each year. Make sure you give this plant sufficient water, possibly daily depending on how much rain we get. Do not confuse this with citronella-scented geraniums or other plants with a citronella scent as they have not been proven to repel mosquitoes. To be effective break off a blade of grass and rub it on your clothing.

Monarda

Monarda

Monarda (bee balm) is in the mint family and native to North America. It is sometimes grown for its flowers, which come in shades of pink, red and purple, but is also an insect repellent. The plant was used medicinally by Native Americans for a number of problems including as an antiseptic and as a seasoning for wild game. But, its scent is what repels mosquitoes. Crush the leaves to release the oil. Like so many flowering plants, it prefers a sunny location and well-drained soil. It does well in acidic soil, generally in the range of 6.0 to 7. If yours is substantially below that, you may need to add lime. It’s hardy in our area and reaches a height of 2 to 3 feet tall.

Marigolds

Marigolds

Marigold is another beautiful plant that repels mosquitoes. Marigolds traditionally come in shades of yellow and orange. When I was a kid, I remember the Burpee seed company having a contest for the first grower who could produce a true white marigold. And yes, the prize was awarded in 1975. ‘Snowdrift,’ ‘Snowman’ and ‘Snowball’ are three of the white cultivars. ‘French Vanilla Hybrid’ has flowers up to 3 inches across.

Marigolds (Tagetes) are in the sunflower family. While native to the Americas, they have become naturalized in many other areas of the world. African and French marigolds are cultivars of the American ones. They don’t have the best scent to humans, but, since mosquitoes hate them and they bloom late spring, summer and into fall, they are well worth planting. They come in a variety of blossom shapes and sizes. Since they bloom about six weeks after germinating, it’s best to start them indoors or buy plants from the nursery. Some gardeners who use companion planting will put marigolds among their veggies to keep insects away.

Lavender

Lavendar

Another beautiful mosquito repellent is lavender. There are approximately four dozen species of flowering plants known as lavender, which are in the mint family — check out the square stems. While used extensively as an ornamental for its beautiful purple flowers, it is also grown for its oils, which are used in a wide variety of scented products, such as soaps, hand creams, perfumes and other cosmetics. One of the nice things about lavender is that it prefers dry, sandy soil. So, for many Long Island gardeners that’s a big plus. Like most herbs, it prefers a sunny location. Besides being a natural mosquito repellent, it can also be used in salad dressings and even baked goods. This one is a definite plus in the garden for many reasons.

Lemon-scented plants

Lemon balm

Lemon-scented plants such as lemon geraniums (Pelargonium crispum), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus), lemon thyme (Thymus vulgaris × citriodus) and lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla) are very effective as mosquito repellents as well. Other plants that seem to repel mosquitoes include artemesia, ageratum, cedars, rosemary, catnip (but it does attract cats), garlic, most mints in general, woodruff and basil.

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

Snowball hydrangeas benefit from a pruning in early spring. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

Well, spring is here and one of the chores necessary for the gardener is to do some spring pruning. Pruning is not one of my favorite gardening jobs but can be needed. In general, put the right type of plant in the right place to start with as you plan new plantings. That way you won’t spend an inordinate amount of time keeping plants small that really want to be large.

Minimizing pruning

• If you know that the shrub is going to reach 10 feet tall at maturity, don’t plant it in front of a window — unless, of course, you don’t want to see out of the window. Plant slow-growing, dwarf plants in that situation.

When pruning pyramidal-shaped evergreens always keep the final shape in mind. Photo by Ellen Barcel

• Don’t plant evergreen trees right up against the house, or any trees for that matter. They’ll grow up against the house, making for an unsightly shaped tree, and you’ll spend a lot of time pruning them to keep them from taking over. Also, they’ll allow critters of all sorts to climb up them and damage your roof (yes, I know from experience). They’ll shade the house so much that the roof won’t dry out properly after a rainstorm. Large trees should be planted at the back of your property and smaller specimen trees toward the front for the best appearance.

• If you hate pruning — what gardener doesn’t — select plants that need minimal pruning such as conifers. Usually the gardener just needs to remove any dead branches (rare), really weirdly growing branches or multiple leaders in pyramidal-shaped trees.

• Always research the specific plant you want to add to your garden so you know exactly what will happen with that plant in the future.

Rules of thumb

• Prune out any dead branches as soon as possible, especially ones that are creating a hazardous situation.

Hydrangea macrophylla bloom on last year’s wood, so should not be pruned in spring. Photo by Ellen Barcel

• To control the height of flowering plants, prune them back immediately after they have bloomed. In this way you won’t interrupt the flowering cycle for next year. That means don’t prune forsythia until right after its put out its yellow flowers in April. Prune rose of Sharon later in the summer after it has bloomed. Don’t prune Hydrangea macrophylla (blue and pink flowering shrubs) until after it has bloomed since it blooms on old (last year’s) wood. Hydrangea arborescens (snowballs), however, benefit from cutting back in early spring since they bloom on new wood.

• Never take off more than one-third of the growing area of a shrub (or blades of grass). Taking more can seriously compromise the health of the plant, even killing it. While some shrubs, like euonymous, or trees like catalpa, will grow from the roots, many others will not if cut back too far.

• Always keep an eye to the overall shape of a plant. For example, if a plant has a pyramidal shape you want to maintain that. If there are stray branches that stick out beyond the pyramidal shape or double leaders, trim them, remembering conifers generally do not resprout the way broadleaf plants do.

• Always research the specific plants you’re pruning to make sure you do it correctly. Sometimes a plant just doesn’t conform to the norm.

For safety

If you have some really large branches broken off a big tree due to winter wind and storms, have a professional, an arborist, come in and deal with them. You don’t need a trip to the ER. Professionals know how to do major pruning safely.

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

Irises come in a variety of colors including these bearded varieties. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

The catalogs have started to arrive — select the bulbs you want to grow next spring but need to plant this fall. So, place your advanced order now. One of the plants you may enjoy in future gardens are irises.

There are hundreds of species of irises. The name comes from Greek, meaning rainbow, although the most commonly seen irises are in shades of purple. Irises are perennial plants growing from rhizomes that do well, in general, in U.S.D.A. zones 5 through 9 (Long Island is zone 7). Check the directions that come with each package, however, as different varieties can have different requirements.

One of the interesting features of irises is how their bloom time varies, by species, from early spring through summer and even into early fall. So, select the varieties you want based not only on color but on when you want to see flowers. Irises that bloom early will generally go dormant in the heat of summer. Iris rhizomes are usually available in nurseries for fall planting.

Above, Dutch iris with some scattered orange poppies. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Once established, the plant’s rhizomes spread, resulting in a larger and larger patch of flowers each year. Seed pods form after the flowers have faded. Yes, in some cases you can grow new plants from the seeds, but sometimes the flowers are sterile. You can also remove the seed pods when they start to form in order to direct the plant’s energy into the plant itself. As with all bulbs, do not cut the greenery off after the flowers have faded. This greenery is feeding the rhizomes for next year’s flowers.

Since this plant spreads by itself, you may find that you need to divide the clump periodically. Rule of thumb is to divide spring flowering plants in the fall. As with most very showy flowering plants, Irises grow best in full sun but will tolerate light shade. A soil pH that is slightly acidic to neutral (6.8 to 7) is ideal. That means for most of us, we need to add lime to the soil. Test yours to be sure. Irises are deer resistant, but no plant is deer proof if the critters are really hungry.

If you cut some of the darker flowers, check the bouquet every day to see if the flowers are wilting. Once that happens you may see drops of a purple liquid dripping from the flowers. Yes, irises were used as a natural dye before the industrial revolution and the introduction of modern dyes.

Some of the most commonly seen irises include:

· Bearded iris (Iris × germanica) has the largest flowers with a “beard,” a hairlike structure on the petals. Most will bloom in late spring to early summer (but can vary depending on variety and weather). They usually reach a height of about 3 feet tall and are two toned. For example, ‘Pirate Ahoy’ is yellow with deep purple, ‘Stairway to Heaven’ has ruffled white and medium blue petals and ‘Ocelot’ is peach and maroon.

· Reblooming bearded iris (I. germanica) blooms in midspring and then again in late summer or early fall. They, too, come in a wide variety of color combinations.

The Yellow Iris aka Iris pseudacorus is an invasive species growing in a local pond on Long Island. Photo by Ellen Barcel

· Dutch iris (I.× hollandica) does not have the “beard” of I. germanica and the petals tend to be narrower. The plants reach about 2 feet tall. They bloom in late spring to early summer and generally are two toned, various combinations of purple and yellow.

· Orchid iris (I. reticulate) is a dwarf plant reaching just 5 or 6 inches high. This Canadian cultivar blooms in early spring and has white and purple flowers with a touch of yellow. These are really cute little flowers.

· Yellow iris (I. pseudacorus) is native to Europe and Asia. It was used to control water pollution but has become invasive in some areas including ours, so this iris is on Suffolk County’s Do Not Sell List and is not available here and should not be propagated if you see it growing.

For more information, visit the American Iris Society website at www.irises.org.

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

Above, a harvested horseradish root

By Ellen Barcel

Horseradish should be planted at the end of April or beginning of May to be harvested the following late fall.

It’s time to plan and plant your herb garden, a garden filled with plants used to provide flavoring for a wide variety of dishes. I particularly like horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) so am planning to grow a bit this year.

How does one use horseradish? My father loved roast beef with horseradish spread on it, whether it be on hot roast beef just out of the oven or on a cold sandwich. I once had a great chicken dish served in a resort where the chicken was baked covered with a thin layer of horseradish.

Several companies also make a cheddar flavored with horseradish. I used to be able to find a hummus with horseradish. Now, if I want it, I need to mix my own horseradish with the hummus. I’ve seen a great recipe for a cream sauce flavored with horseradish. So, basically, horseradish can be used as a flavoring for almost any savory dish if you like its strong taste.

According to the Horseradish Information Council, it has been used as far back as 1500 B.C. by the Egyptians. Since horseradish is hot, one or maybe two plants at the most are usually enough for a family, unless you and your friends and relatives really love the taste. You can buy crowns from a nursery or even use a root from the supermarket.

The horseradish plant can be planted in a pot to keep it from spreading.

Horseradish can be grown in the ground or in pots. Personally, I prefer to raise my herbs in pots or in window boxes. Plants in pots are less likely to be strangled by nearby plants and less likely to spread into other plants, taking over my garden (as horseradish and plants like mints can do). Also, I control the soil — I usually use a good-quality potting soil.

Plant your horseradish at the end of April or beginning of May, depending on weather and then harvest the following late fall (after a hard frost for the hottest flavor), winter or early spring, making sure you keep a few pieces of root in the soil for the following year’s harvest since horseradish is a perennial plant. It does well in U.S.D.A. zones 4 to 7 (Long Island is zone 7) and requires little care. If you decide you don’t want to grow horseradish next year, make sure you remove all the sections of roots or it will regrow.

Horseradish grows in a wide variety of conditions but does require a rich soil, so add a generous amount of compost to the soil. Like most herbs, it grows best in sun but will tolerate light shade. Long Island’s soil is very acidic (test yours), but horseradish prefers a soil near neutral (a pH of 7). This means you need to use a good-quality potting soil if growing it in a container or add lime to your garden soil if growing in the ground. Water the plants once a week as long as there is some rain, more in drought conditions, but make sure that you don’t overwater them. They like moist but not soggy soil. If you decide to add fertilizer, do it only once in spring — personally I prefer to add more compost.

Store the harvested roots in the fridge. When ready to use, peel and then grate the harvested roots, add a dash of salt and cover with vinegar and store in your fridge for future use. I’ve read that a bit of sugar added to the mixture will cut the hot flavor. Remember that a little horseradish goes a long way. For more recipes and uses visit the Horseradish Information Council website at www.horseradish.org.

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

Don't cut your lawn shorter than 3 inches or you'll damage it. Stock Photo
A baker’s dozen lawn tips

By Ellen Barcel

Well, winter is over and it’s time to think about spring and gardening and that includes your lawn. If you followed recommendations, you fertilized your lawn last October and patched bare spots. You removed fallen leaves. Now, what should you be doing?

1. Remove any leaves from the lawn that may have accumulated over the winter. These can be composted, but leaves do take longer to break down than greenery so it’s best to shred them. The more surface exposed, the faster the composting process will happen.

2. Gather up any broken branches that came down during the winter’s storms. I use this wood for my fireplace, but each wood has a different scent. Apple wood is wonderful but weeping willow wood is definitely not. If you have a chipper you can turn downed wood into mulch.

3. If you had a lot of weeds in your lawn last year, consider applying pre-emergent weed killer. Personally, I just mow them over since they’re green, but if it’s a problem for you, spread the weed killer.

4. If you haven’t patched bare spots or new ones developed, spring is the ideal time to do that. Most of the lawn grasses we grow on Long Island are cool weather grasses and grow best in spring and fall.

Don’t plant grass right up against tree trunks as the bark can be damaged during mowing. Photo by Ellen Barcel

5. In general, grass won’t grow well in very shady areas. The plants need sun, but fescue tolerates some shade. So, when patching, look for mixes that note that they do well in some shade.

6. Turn on (and repair as needed) any irrigation system you have once the danger of frost has passed.

7. You can spread fertilizer after the beginning of April. (Suffolk County law prohibits spreading it before that time to prevent chemicals from polluting the groundwater. Lawns just don’t take up fertilizer from November through March.) Don’t apply fertilizer to zoyzia grass until it has greened up, however, since it is a warm weather grass.

8. When mowing, don’t cut the lawn shorter than 3 inches. Remember these are plants and if you “scalp” them, you can kill them. They need a certain amount of greenery to thrive. While it’s tempting to cut the lawn really short so you don’t have to do it that often, you’ll damage the lawn.

9. Leave the clippings on the lawn as they will break down and return nutrients to the soil. If you must gather them up, then compost them.

10. Don’t walk on the grass, for the same reason. You wouldn’t walk on your tomato plants or bean plants, so don’t walk on the grass. Install some sort of walkways for frequently trodden paths.

11. If your soil is substantially below a pH of 6.0 to 7, you need to periodically add lime to sweeten the soil. So, test your soil, then follow the manufacturer’s direction on quantity and frequency of application.

12. Generally, on Long Island, your lawn needs 1 inch of water per week. On average, Long Island gets 4 inches of rain per month. During spring and fall, and with cooler temperatures, rain frequently takes care of this need, but come the heat of summer you will probably have to supplement the rain. However, be on the lookout for periods of drought like we’ve had the last two years. Remember that two inches of rain all at once, quickly drains from the soil.

13. Don’t plant grass close up to the base of trees. If you do, the trees may be damaged as you mow each week. Instead, put mulch and/or annuals or perennials around the base of trees. That way, a “weed wacker” won’t damage the tree bark.

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

By Ellen Barcel

You may have seen ornamental pepper plants in the stores this time of year. NuMex Easter Ornamental Pepper (Capsicum anuum) is a neat plant for Easter decorating. The plant look like a bouquet of peppers above the dense greenery. This is a small plant, generally about 8 inches high and 10 inches wide, making it ideal as a hostess gift or a table centerpiece. It produces beautifully colored ornamental peppers (purple, cream, yellow and orange).

Yes, it can be grown from seed, but you won’t have a plant ready for this Easter. The ornamental pepper blooms and produces peppers all summer long, maturing in 72 days. While there are many varieties of peppers that are available as heirloom plants, the NuMex Easter is a hybrid. Can you save the seeds to grow in future? You can try it, but as with all hybrids, it’s unlikely that the plants will breed true. Buy the hybrid seeds if you want to grow this one in your garden or the plants from a nursery.

The name Easter pepper came from the pastel color of the peppers when they first appear on the plant. The plant was bred by the New Mexico State University’s Chili Pepper Institute — it also developed a Valentine’s Day pepper (red and white), a St. Patrick’s Day pepper (green) and a Halloween pepper (orange and black) among many others.

This is a great plant for Long Island considering it tolerates heat, humidity and drought. Tiny white flowers form first on the plant to be followed by the brightly colored peppers. Tidy up the plant periodically by removing old, dried peppers and there’s more of a chance of new peppers forming.

Like tomatoes, a close relative, pepper plants like sun. A soil pH of 6.0 or above provides optimal growing conditions, so yes, you probably need to lime your soil if growing them in the ground. If you are growing your peppers in a container and you’ve bought it already growing, the soil is probably just fine.

Is the Easter pepper edible? Different authorities have different opinions. Some say it’s purely an ornamental plant with taste varying from plant to plant. Other authorities, including the NMU say yes, it is edible but extremely hot. In any event, do not consume peppers from the plants grown commercially as ornamentals because you won’t know what kind of chemicals have been used on them.

This is also true of plants like potato vines. Yes, you sometimes get sweet potatoes from the vines in fall, but again, you don’t know what chemicals have been used by the grower, since they are not intended for human consumption. If you want peppers, or sweet potatoes, to eat, select varieties and plants that are grown specifically for human consumption. Besides unwanted chemicals, these plants have been selected for various qualities like taste, time to maturity, keeping quality and highest yield.

The NuMex Easter pepper plants are not frost tolerant, so, if growing them outdoors over the summer, you need to either treat them as an annual or bring them indoors for the winter. According to NMU, chili plants grown indoors in a sunny location and given optimal care can last for 10 or more years.

The plants are available locally usually where ornamental or house plants are sold. Seeds are available from a number of growers, but the seeds of this ornamental as well as many others developed at NMU are available from the Chili Pepper Institute itself (www.chile.nmsu.edu).

Looking for other Easter plants? Consider the Easter cactus — similar to the Christmas cactus but it blooms in spring — as well as a pot of spring flowering bulbs for this time of year. Remember, Easter lilies are highly toxic to cats. So, if you have cats either don’t bring Easter lilies into the house or make sure that the plants are in a room that the cats can’t get into. Not only is the plant toxic but the water that the cut flowers are in can be dangerous for them as well. Happy spring!

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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'Blue in Green' by Peter Galasso

By Ellen Barcel

“You rarely see a show of all abstract art,” said artist Peter Galasso, of the Art League of Long Island’s new show, Long Island Abstraction: 2 Generations, on view at the league’s Jeanie Tengelsen Gallery now through April 15.

‘Accents Red’ by Frank Wimberley

Four artists, Stan Brodsky, Laura Powers-Swiggett, Frank Wimberley and Galasso have filled the gallery with approximately 50 of their abstract works. What else unites these four artists? They are all award-winning artists with strong ties to Long Island. Two, Galasso and Powers-Swiggett were influenced by their mentor, Brodsky. The fourth, Wimberley was added to the exhibit by Galasso.

“I’ve been showing for 25 years. I met Frank [Wimberley] about 10 years ago at a gallery show. I admired his work,” said Galassao in a recent interview. The two became friends and Galasso suggested his work for an exhibit held at the Art League about two years ago. When the concept for the current exhibit was broached, “I told him of my idea of two generations of abstract artists from Long Island …” The idea was very specific. “He could see how this would work.”

Where did the two generations come from? Both Brodsky and Wimberley are in their 90s, the senior members of the foursome. Powers-Swiggett and Galasso, the younger members, were both students of Brodsky. Brodsky was not only a mentor to these two, but many, many others as professor of art at C.W. Post College for over 30 years. In his artist’s statement, Brodsky noted, “I’ve been an exhibiting artist in New York City for more than 50 years — and my passion for painting is a strong now as ever.”

‘Descending Light 2’ by Stan Brodsky

Galasso described Wimberley’s work saying, “I admire his work — movement and color. He uses a lot of acrylic medium, a very thick mixture. It moves spontaneously across the canvas.”

Susan Peragallo, gallery coordinator, said that abstract art is nonrepresentational and “about expressing an idea or emotion using color, line and form.” But what inspires each of these four artists? In his artist’s statement Brodsky noted, “I have traveled extensively absorbing the colors and textures of new landscapes,” and Powers-Swiggett’s paintings are landscape-based abstractions exploring spatial and color relationships. Galasso’s works have been described as “an exploration of feeling, memory and a unique vision …”

Abstract art can be very freeing for both the artist and the viewer. The realist must represent the scene accurately, but the abstract artist uses a scene as inspiration. Said Wimberley in his artist statement, “The abstract painter can commence his drawing or canvas generally with only a preconceived notion, reflection or emotion … he has far less guarantees than perhaps the realist painter or photographer that the finished expression with extended from calculated reason or logic. This for me provides the excitement of taking the theme or feeling from the very first stroke, and following it to its own particular conclusion. It is very much like creating the controlled accident.”

‘Wawapek’ by Laura Powers-Swiggett

While each of the four artists decided which of their works were to be shown, it was Peragallo who decided which paintings would be hung together, making them, “flow together. That was my job. It was sort of like putting a puzzle together. You want the works to speak to each other but one shouldn’t overpower the other. They should gradually draw the viewer into the show.” “It’s a wonderful show, really beautiful,” said Peragallo. “People who don’t normally like abstract art come in and say ‘Wow.’ It’s a happy show, so colorful and uplifting,” she added.

Long Island Abstraction: 2 Generations will be on view at The Jeanie Tengelsen Gallery of the Art League of Long Island, 107 East Deer Park Road, Dix Hills through April 15. The gallery is open Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and weekends from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free. For further information, call 631-462-5400 or go to www.artleagueli.org.

Beautyberry plants are lovely shrubs but also provide berries for birds. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

If, for one reason or another, you have limited gardening space, there are ways of maximizing the space that you have. However, you need to think outside the box.

Vertical gardening

Clematis, which grow up rather than out, are ideal for vertical gardening. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Consider using plants that grow up rather than out. Vining veggies (indeterminate tomatoes, cucumbers, peas, etc.) can be trained up a trellis or fence. The same is true with flowering plants, like clematis. This allows you to put in more plants in a given space.

Planters

Several large planters, strategically placed on a deck or patio, add to the growing space as well as the beauty of the area. Window boxes and planters, attached wherever there is a railing, will add to your growing space as will hanging baskets. Small tomato plants can even be grown in these hanging baskets.

Succession planting

You can also make efficient use of your gardening space by succession planting. When an early crop has come in, plant a second or even third crop of late summer or autumn veggies in the same space. Intercropping is something that Native Americans did by planting corn (which acted as a support) between vines like beans or squash. You can also scatter annual flower seeds in the same bed where you are growing spring flowering bulbs. By the time the bulbs have bloomed and the greenery faded, the annuals are sprouting and will soon bloom.

Dwarf plants

Azaleas tend to be smaller shrubs and can easily be pruned to keep them the size you need. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Using dwarf plants allows the gardener to grow a larger variety of plants since each dwarf plant takes up less space. Small rhododendrons include ‘PJM,’ ‘September Snow’ and ‘Cappuccino.’ Most azaleas stay relatively small and are easy to prune to keep to the size you need. Small rose bushes are nice in a sunny area. When you have a small amount of land, go for dwarf varieties of trees or trees, which generally don’t grow very large, like dogwood, Japanese red maple or crepe myrtle.

Less lawn

Unless you have a really pressing reason not to, cut back on the amount of land devoted to growing a lawn. It will be less work for you (mowing, spreading fertilizer and weed killer) and less chemicals will go into the environment. This frees up land for fruits and veggies, specimen trees, shrubs, etc.

Double duty

Make your plants do double duty. If you need a hedge, consider planting blueberry bushes. You’ll have your hedge and a bountiful crop of berries. Plant dwarf tomatoes in hanging baskets. They’ll dress up the outside and at the same time give you tomatoes for your salads. If you want to attract birds to the garden, consider any plant that produces berries that birds enjoy such as beautyberry. The berries can also be used to make jelly as can rose petals and rose hips.

For a kid’s play tepee, wire together a few poles to make the supports, set up as an inverted cone and plant pole beans or scarlet runner beans around the outside of the tepee, making sure you leave an opening for kids to come and go. If you don’t want veggies, plant climbing flowers instead.

There are several things to keep in mind when maximizing gardening space:

• Make sure you water you plants sufficiently. Those growing in pots can dry out more quickly than those raised in the ground. Those grown as part of a vertical gardening system may require more water in general than smaller plants raised in the same space.

• You may need to use more fertilizer than you would normally for the same reasons as needing to use more water. Be careful here, however, not to burn your plants. It’s safest to use compost.

• Keep out weeds as they will compete for resources in the garden.

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

Heirloom tomatoes are grown from the seed of the previous generation. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

Sometimes when we buy seeds or plants there will be terms listed on the label or packaging that tell us that plants are raised in a certain way or have certain characteristics. Many gardeners will seek out special types of plants, such as heirloom or hybrid. What do these terms mean and how can the gardener use them to his or her best advantage?

Heirloom plants

Virtually all veggies are available in the form of heirloom seeds including green beans. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Each autumn when I was a kid, my father used to select the best tomatoes he had grown the past summer and save the seeds. He’d remove them from the tomato and dry them on a paper towel. Come spring, he’d plant the seeds to get the new generation of tomatoes. He didn’t use the term then, but they were what was known as heirloom plants. Heirloom plants are ones grown from seed openly pollinated and produced by the parent plant. In general, heirloom plants breed true to the parent. We generally think of heirloom plants in terms of tomatoes, but the term refers to any older varieties of plants, generally passed down through the generations.

Hybrids

Hybrids are crosses between two different varieties of a plant in an attempt to get the best qualities of both. Seeds from hybrid plants do not breed true, so saving them for future generations is not really an option. Gardeners therefore must buy the hybrid seeds (or plants grown from them by plant breeders) each year.

Sports

Sports are unexpected mutations of a plant. Saving the seeds from sports is iffy at best. The seeds might not be viable, could produce the new characteristics or could produce the original plant. Generally, if a sport has desirable qualities, like an apple tree with a branch that produces larger, sweeter apples, the plant is reproduced vegetatively by cuttings since cuttings will breed true.

GMOs

GMOs are genetically modified organisms. A scientist in a laboratory has taken genes from one organism and added it to another. The foreign genes could come from any type of organism, other plants or even animals. Supporters of GMOs say that the resulting product is safe and has superior qualities, such as it may be more disease resistant, have a longer shelf life or the plant may produce a heavier crop. Opponents are concerned about unexpected consequences — is the product safe? What are the long-term results? You may see products in the supermarket marked non-GMO because of these concerns. Legislation passed last summer in the U.S. will require foods with GMOs to be labeled. Some foods that have been genetically modified include soybeans, corn and tomatoes.

Organic gardening

Organic gardening refers to any plant — heirloom, hybrid, sport or GMO — raised without the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Organic gardeners use compost or other nonchemical fertilizers like compost tea, bone meal, holly tone, etc. To avoid pesticides, organic gardeners will sometimes hand pick pests like slugs, encourage birds to nest in the garden (to eat insects) and use companion planting, for example, surround tulips with daffodils, to keep the squirrels away. For farms to be certified organic, chemical pesticides and fertilizers cannot be used on the land for a number of years before the beginning of organic gardening.

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

Above, an illustration of the planned hedge maze. Image courtesy of Walter Becker

By Ellen Barcel

Hedge mazes — they’re pretty and they’re fun and one is coming to Mount Sinai’s Heritage Park this year, courtesy of the Mount Sinai Garden Club. According to member Walter Becker, the garden maze will be very unique. “To the best of my knowledge this is the only hedge maze on Long Island,” said Becker in a recent interview.

A-mazing history

There’s a long history of garden mazes going back to Europe during the Renaissance period (14th to 17th century), especially in Britain and France. Some were just designed to provide a unique walkway. Later on, it became popular to include blind alleys to confuse those wandering through the maze. Still others are destination mazes where one walks through the paths trying to find the center. Some destination mazes have small gazebo’s in the center or some other architectural feature, such as a small bridge, a water feature like a birdbath or a statuary. A bench or small table and chairs is ideal for a smaller maze.

While most mazes are round or rectangular, they can be almost any shape. Some have plants that are quite tall — tall enough that the average adult can’t see over them — while others are so small that you can easily see across them. Usually garden mazes are made from evergreens so that it can be used throughout the entire year.

Setting the plan in motion

The Mount Sinai Garden Club is planning to install a hedge maze at Heritage Park (known locally as The Wedge) as early as the end of March. “The entrance and the exit of the maze are going to be on the same side,” explained Becker, making it be easier for parents “to keep track of their children playing in it.” When installed next to the new putting green, the maze will be 48 by 36 feet and is being donated by members of the garden club.

The Hinoki cypress, an evergreen with soft needles, will be used in the construction of the maze. Image courtesy of Walter Becker

A tremendous amount of research and planning was put into the design of the maze. The group wanted evergreen plants that could be pruned to a specific height, that would be sturdy and pest and blight resistant. For example, Becker said, “boxwoods were expensive and they were prone to a blight,” so they were ruled out. They also wanted plants that required minimum maintenance and that were not invasive.

After looking at many shrubs, they finally settled on the Hinoki cypress, Chamaecyparis obtuse, “an evergreen with soft needles, which takes drought conditions and does well in full sun.” A native of Japan, it is a slow-growing conifer that does well in acidic soil, another plus for Long Island’s growing conditions. It’s hardy in U.S.D.A. zones 4 to 8 (Long Island is zone 7) with an eventual height of nine feet high and a width of five feet. The garden club may decide to prune it back to six feet depending on usage.

What gave Becker the idea for a maze? During a recent trip to Colonial Williamsburg, he particularly enjoyed seeing children playing at the Governer’s Palace Maze. They would run in and around, entertaining themselves and even making up games. “It allows kids to have some fun,” he said.

While the garden club members are the prime movers and have donated both time and funds for the installation, many others have helped as well. Thanks are extended to the Mount Sinai Civic Association, the Heritage Trust, Town of Brookhaven Parks Department, Echo Landscape, Jake Ziskin with Blades of Glory Landscape, Schlect Nurseries, Bob Koch Tree Service and DeLea Sod Farms for all their assistance, guidance and donations.

A call for volunteers

“This is a huge undertaking,” said Becker, noting that volunteers are welcome and needed for the initial planting as well as long-term maintenance of the maze. On Sunday, March 26 (weather permitting)) the group will begin the construction of the maze by spray painting the layout on the ground. During the week of March 26, excavating and soil preparation will take place. On Saturday, April 1, 140 shrubs are scheduled to be delivered to Heritage Park. Volunteers are needed to help unload the shrubs and mulch and to help with planting. The plants are in five-gallon pots and are about three to four feet tall. In addition to adult volunteers, young people (over age 12) are welcome.

Volunteers are asked to bring their own tools and dress accordingly and are asked to register at the garden club’s website before the event. Becker also noted that although the garden club is based in Mount Sinai it is open to members of the surrounding communities as well. Once the plants are installed and mulch laid down, the maze will be closed for a short period of time to allow the plants to settle in. A formal opening will be held at a to-be-determined date.

Can you plant a garden maze in your own yard? Well, it is possible if you have enough room. Recommendations include at least a 25-foot across space, but consider a tiny maze with dwarf plants and fairy sculpture as a charming alternative.

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

Garden plots for rent

Spring is just a few weeks away. The Mount Sinai Garden Club has several garden plots available for rent at Heritage Park, 633 Mount Sinai–Coram Road, Mount Sinai for 2017 at a cost of only $25 per year. Each raised bed is 4 feet by 8 feet, perfect for maintaining a vegetable or flower garden. For more information, email mountsinaigardenclub@yahoo.com or call the park at 631-509-0882.

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