Ridin’ The Storm Out

Storms make the oak grow deeper roots – George Herbert

With a two day snow storm underway, my thoughts have rested mostly on the outdoors. Did I protect the vulnerable plants properly? Were the roses pruned so no limbs are in danger of breaking or tearing in the high winds swirling around? Are the hydrangeas going to be brave and not succumb like they did last winter and petulantly produced no flowers in the summer? Will the espalier be safe from the rodents this time around? I am fervently invoking every higher power in the universe to please, please safeguard my precious garden.

Storms are inevitable in any season. Hurricanes bringing lashing rains, blizzards delivering record snow, gale force winds, damaging sleet and hailstones are all events one experiences at one time or other. However, these past few years have brought more violent disturbances of the atmosphere than before. Extreme temperatures have not helped either. I do believe it is time we accepted that this erratic weather pattern is going to become the norm. Better we seriously buckle down to taking the right actions to protect our gardens before more loss and damage is incurred.

So, lets start a check list:
Design the garden with storms in mind – obviously, this is best done when you are starting from scratch. But, for most of us, it means that from now on, we must purchase plants that are hardy and have characteristics that make it more capable of coming through storms. Deep roots, tolerant of very low temperatures, species that are likely to shed leaves quickly in high winds so the branches are less likely to break from the weight of wet leaves. Flood tolerance might be a requirement if your land is prone to them. Red maples, cypresses and others can withstand a variety of water conditions. If one lives along the coast, salt tolerances from surges might be a necessity. Ascertain the mature size of trees and shrubs so there is no danger of problems with buildings, power lines and fences in the future. That native species do best cannot be overemphasized. Seriously.

Stay on top of maintenance – once the most suitable plants are in place, taking proper care of them is of the highest priority. This is a year round task. Encourage healthy root systems. Stake wherever required, prune diligently, fertilize and water as needed, weed, clean up, cut back and, as much as possible have good air circulation between the plants. Remember, over-watering or over-fertilizing will lead to weak, shallow roots. Make sure that you have a practical plan to protect items like furniture, barbecues, pots, statuary and such when anticipating bad weather.

Check the garden every season to be sure trees and shrubs are trimmed and shaped so they not only look their best but are safe in storms. Thinning the foliage will permit winds to go through the branches as opposed to pushing against the growth and possibly uprooting them. This selective pruning is a practice best initiated when the plants are young.

When getting any hardscaping work done, do not cut away at tree roots as this can destabilize the tree when a storm hits. You are better off removing the tree. Position it elsewhere if that is possible. On the subject of hardscaping, keep all structures in good repair. Loose stones, cracked walls, rotting wood spell disasters waiting to happen.

Keep the garden free of leaf and twig piles that can choke storm drains or become harmful missiles when winds pick up.

When a storm is imminent – the list of chores is of course dependent on the season.
Mow the lawn before the storm. It’ll be easier to clear debris after.
Harvest all ripe fruit and vegetables. It might at times be prudent to pick off the unripe fruits if there is danger of them becoming weapons for rowdy winds to hurl around. Cut flowers in bloom to enjoy indoors. Seed pods are also worth picking off for two reasons. One, they can be dried and saved for new plants and two, will not be scattered by the wind where they might sow themselves at random and become a nuisance.
Secure or bring in all pots. Likewise, keep all outdoor furniture from harm.
Stake all vulnerable plants.
Use sheets of plastic or fleece to shelter plants and statuary from cold snaps and sudden frost.
Keep snow shovels, deicers (preferably the least toxic variety), grit or sand, flashlights, batteries, candles, radio and, water handy.

After the storm – do not be hasty in trying to set everything right in the garden. Immediately after violent weather, the plants will most certainly look tortured (ever ridden in a convertible with hair loose and top down?). Give the garden a little time to recover some composure. You will often find that the damage was not as bad as first perceived.
The most immediate task is to clear debris from the lawn and beds.
Check for damages. This is the time to note what was neglected, what was inadequate and what simply failed. Plan repairs, remedies, replacements and, removals as needed.
If a tree was toppled and you think it might be uprighted and saved, keep the exposed roots moist and protected till the chore can be accomplished. Very probably some sort of additional help by way of expert action and tools will be needed.
Remove damaged limbs and branches. Give the plant time to gain back its health.
Fallen trees – if the tree has no chance of recovering, clear it away. If they have fallen in the woods or someplace away from scrutiny, they can be left as is to support a population of new vegetation and critters and eventually it will decompose into the soil thereby enriching it. Otherwise, have the tree cut up and moved away so that whatever was damaged in the fall can be taken care of.
Branches hanging from power lines must be left to the power companies to deal with.
It is worth your time and money to get the advice of an arborist whenever there are trees in question.
Decide what plants did well and what did not. Rethink your planting selections.
Any hardscaping damage should be similarly addressed. Timely action is the solution.

Now sit back and relax. The ride might get bumpy but you’ve done your bit.
Here are images from previous storms:
(c)2915 Shobha Vanchiswar

Dancing With Goats

Expressions such as In the arms of goats and Getting my goat have been rather unkind to the frisky, curious , diminutive ruminant. In this month, when Capricorn symbolized by a goat rules, I thought I’d make some amends.

It has been an increasing problem to get rid of fast-growing invasive plants that are seen thriving all along our highways and byways. Any gardener who has dealt with freeing the garden of poison ivy or bittersweet will know exactly how hard that is. Typically, chemicals and/or machinery have been employed. But in either case, there are associated concerns. Chemicals poison the soil and are not good at preventing seeds from sprouting. Machinery disturb the soil too much and that results in erosion.

Enter the Eco-Goats. They are a group of goats that are available for hire one week at a time from May to November to chomp and destroy the offending plants up and down the northeast United States. It is a simple, time-tested biological solution to a more recent biological problem. The animals are more effective than chemicals or other methods because, between their strong, grinding teeth and their multi-chambered stomachs, seeds cannot survive. So once the area is cleared by the goats, no seeds remain to grow back. I do believe the extra bonus is the goat manure – the soil gets enriched while the goats feast!

Machinery brought in to clear the invasives are often too large and in any case cannot be used in steep, wooded areas. Goats can. Tall goats can access plants more than eight feet high. A trip of 35 goats can demolish half an acre of thick vegetation in about four days. Which apparently, is about the amount of time it takes the creatures to get bored with eating the same food.

There are now several well-established goat grazing companies around the country. They have been employed to take on phragmites and kudzu swamped spaces and doing quite well. More and more invasive species are being identified as fodder for the goats. In many cases, insects and other bio-controls have failed to be effective. Super-goats to the rescue! An environmentally sound solution to keep the environment sound.

Now tell me, does this not put a smile on your face?

Having cleared an area in your garden, I have a plant suggestion for you to invite into it. Goat’s Beard! Aruncus dioicus is an American native and an excellent choice to back a border in semi-shade or in a woodland garden. Its large, feathery plumes of white flowers draw butterflies and other pollinators. In fact, it is a host plant to the Dusky Azure butterfly. It blooms in May-June. Growing to a height of 3-6 feet, it spreads slowly rhizomatously to create attractive patches of itself. Goat’s Beard grows well from planting zone 3 all the way to zone 8. Hardy and innocuous.

A rather fitting tribute to the lowly, lively goat I think.


At a farm in Illinois. The goats are kept as pets.

At a farm in Illinois. These goats are kept as pets.

Goat's Beard

Goat’s Beard

Goat's Beard 2
(c)2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

Sowing Dreams

We might be in the depths of winter but the gardening season has begun. It begins with dreams. Beautiful, perfect, improbable garden dreams. I cannot think of a better beginning.

As the seed and plant catalogs arrive, my heart beats faster. Excitement is high. The images in them are mouthwatering and every greedy instinct I possess kicks into high gear. I covet every plant. While I already know where and what is needed in my already burgeoning garden, I’m happy to fantasize impossible-to-grow-here specimens. For a few fleeting moments every so many hours, I envision a myriad combination of plants. In my day dreams I have assorted dogwoods, redwoods, elms and even coconut palms in my quarter acre piece of Paradise in the currently frigid northeast. Not all at the same time – even in my dreams I cannot be that wild. I imagine all sorts of shrubs and perennials and I’ve developed a a fun pastime where I mentally design beds of plants that will look stunning together but in reality cannot co-exist. Adonis lilies mingling with agapanthus in the perennial bed anyone? How about an allée of plumeria trees under-planted with peonies? I have a mental plan for a perfume garden surrounded by a low hedge of rosemary, an entryway arch supporting creeping, night-blooming jasmine and inside, there will be a pergola covered with wisteria. Paths of thyme will take me past lilacs and roses encircled by phlox, lilies and gardenias.

It is so much fun to go into these reveries. Abandoning all the natural restrictions, to create gardens in the air is positively therapeutic. It is the first step to creativity. But there is another big benefit. In the process of dreaming, one learns about oneself. The colors, patterns and shapes one prefers. Whether fragrance is important. The season that is most enjoyed and why. It can be eye-opening.

Emerging from it all can be the design for your actual garden. Taken by the idea of lavender borders but cannot grow the plant where you live? Perhaps Blue Wonder or Walker’s Low catmint will fit the bill. The look will be similar. Russian sage might work too. Another approach is to use your dream list and then substitute invasive non-natives with native alternatives. For example, get rid of Japanese honeysuckle and plant instead the American variety. For fragrance, add Clematis viorna. If you like the strong vertical style of Miscanthus species for fall/winter interest, go for our native split-beard bluestem or switchgrass or little bluestem or Indiangrass instead. Similarly, rather than the Burning Bush euonymus, plant oak-leaf hydrangea for fall color. All sorts of matters can get sorted out this way. The least of which will be your growing knowledge of innumerable plants.

I carry the newly arrived catalogs with me. Then I dive into mini-reveries every time I must wait and kill some time. Keeps me calm, feeling productive and makes time fly. So, go ahead, let your imagination run riot. Come spring, you’ll be well on your way to creating the garden of your dreams.
Flower seed packets:
Packets of flower seeds Vegetable seed packets:
Vegetale seed packets

I'm enjoying this bright beauty right now.

I’m enjoying this bright beauty right now.

Dream big and stay warm!

Dream big and stay warm!

(c)2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

Out With The Old! Really?

As the first article of the new year, I feel it should be profound and pithy. Sort of set the right tone for the year. But that just puts unnecessary pressure. So, I’m not going to try. It is what it is.

Looking ahead to the upcoming months, I’m going over a growing list of projects I’d like to either start or move forward to finish. Still, I’m drawn to reading up on old practices and traditions. They are what links the past to the present to the future.

Here we are in 2015 with technology and inventions that we couldn’t have imagined a few years ago. And yet, at the same time, I keep hearing ancient advice and solutions to a great deal of life’s conundrums. Yoga, meditation, acupuncture, herbal remedies, ancient grains such as amaranth and quinoa, Ayurvedic medicine …

I’m not talking old wives tales or misguided thinking ( human/animal sacrifice anyone?) but it is rather impressive that many of the old advice holds up to modern examinations. Often, there is now science to back them up. Clearly, we don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel nor do we need to reject the old ways. We just need to refresh or tweak some practices and bring them forward to current lifestyles. Just consider how hip it is to meditate or do yoga. Better workout clothes and celebrity endorsements have been most effective. But lets not forget the mounting evidence supporting them. We’ve rediscovered the benefits of the likes of quinoa, garlic, turmeric, coconut oil and so many others – all of which have been consumed through the ages in various parts of the world. Those ancient cultures couldn’t have explained how the foods helped but they figured out that they did. We now know the why and the how. I remember learning early on in my days as a microbiology major that turmeric has bactericidal properties. Being all too familiar with Indian cuisine, it suddenly made so much sense that this spice was an ingredient in so many recipes. There are numerous such examples from different countries and cultures.

So it is in the garden as well. An ancient, universal practice in itself. I enjoy finding old books on gardening – they have taught me more than one would expect. Often, valuable practices have succumbed to trends and modern inventions. Along the way, we lost track of these important nuggets of knowledge. A shame.

These past few weeks I’ve been exploring old garden wisdom. The experience has been comforting. Like getting comfortable with a grandparent and listening to stories of the ‘good old days’. I thought I’d share some ‘discoveries’ with you. Some are functional, several are fun and others are plain funny. You decide.

In The Garden:
Bury garlic cloves at the foot of rose bushes. It is supposed to enhance color and scent of the roses while keeping away greenflies.
Sow with the moon. During the waxing phase, sow for plants that should emerge out of the ground and grow towards the sky. This would mean all flowers and vegetables like lettuces and beans. During the waning phase, sow the plants whose root system needs to grow strong – like potatoes, radishes, cabbages, tomatoes, cucumbers, gherkins and all fruits. I know this is practiced even today by many gardeners. I have only mentioned synodic planting here. There is also sidereal and biodynamic planting. I find it all interesting but not particularly practical for myself.
Do not plant cucumber and melon seeds next to each other. The melons will lose their sweetness and taste bland.
Companion planting is an age-old practice. In my experience some work and some do not. Here is one new to me – asparagus plants will protect tomatoes from disease when they are grown nearby. This is because have a substance called asparagine.
When the blade of a garden tool gets rusty, rub the whole surface with the cut side of an onion sprinkled with sugar. The sweet onion juice will remove the rust and prevent it from forming again. I think I’m going to try this out.
Add a cup or two of oil to a bucket of sand. Stick in hand trowels and rakes when not in use. It will keep the tools sharp, rust free and clean. I have been doing this for years. It works. Note: I pour used motor oil in the sand.

Out Of The garden:
When buying melons, the smell must not be sickly as this indicates that it is overripe.
To preserve lemons, keep them immersed in fresh water. Change water regularly. Makes the fruits juicier.
When cooking cauliflower, add a piece of stale bread to the water and this will combat the classic odoriferous aroma. I tried this and it does not work.
Artichoke stalks are edible. Just peel and cook them with the artichokes. Season and eat.
Unlike onions, garlic sprouts should not be eaten as they are hard to digest. Remove and toss them.
A drop of wax at the end of apple and pear stalks will help the fruit last longer.
Walnuts will stay fresh longer if put in jars filled with sand.
To make dried walnuts taste like fresh ones, soak them in fresh milk for a few hours. Hmmm, would that be skim, 1%, 2% or whole milk?
For minor skin irritations or dermatitis, boil lily petals or bulbs in milk, puree and apply.
Powder of dried sage makes a good deodorant for use in shoes. Particularly sneakers. Personally, I’d just put a bouquet of sage leaves. The thought of fine powder all over the floor when the shoes are put on or taken off …
Quince pips contain mucilage ( a kind of gum). Soak the pips in water for a few days. A translucent jelly will appear. This jelly can be applied to the face for cleaning and softening.

There are so many more such antiquated/archaic/time-honored observances. I’m certain you know of some good ones yourself. Please do not hesitate to share. At the very least, it makes for good conversation. At best, we become a part of the link to our ancestors. It is all good.

Happy New Year to all!
In keeping with the old-fashioned ways, I’m not adding photos. Only watercolor imagery!
(c)2015 Shobha Vanchiswar