Dogwoods are nature’s underdogs. So are the many other understory trees native to our woodlands, including serviceberry, wild plum, redbud, hawthorn, wahoo, and sassafras. The sheer size of cottonwood, sycamore, hickory, oak, and maple helps the towering giants win The Most Colorful contest in October. But shorter species offer big blessings, too. In the wild, their individual beauty often is disguised by the hovering limbs of tall neighbors, like schoolyard bullies showing little respect for personal space. By now, though, the big boys have reached their peak and bared their branches, allowing the small-fries of the forest and fencerows to show what they’re made of. They win me over, not just for the cute factor, but for their value in home landscaping. After all, smaller trees are a better fit for most backyards. Plus, many of these space-saving natives offer sweet spring blossoms, glorious fall foliage, and colorful fruits that wildlife can’t resist. The underdogs, in this case, have the last “bark.”
Unexpected discoveries are sometimes welcome. This year I planned to grow a couple of varieties of pumpkins in my garden. The seed packets said that they were ‘Baby Bear’, a cute, if not exactly cuddly, round orange fruited type, and ‘Rouge Vif d’Etampes’, a flattened, deep orange variety sometimes called Cinderella pumpkin because it resembles the fairytale princess’s coach. As you can see in the photo at left, ‘Baby Bear’ lived up to its billing, but the other variety turned out to be ‘Long Island Cheese’, so named because it originated on Long Island and it looks a bit like a buff color wheel of cheese with a waxy bloom on its skin.
Because pumpkins take lots up lots of room in the garden, I planted them where they could sprawl. ‘Baby Bear’ set up residence next to my tomatoes, and before long was clambering over the tomato cages. With the wet spring we had in central Iowa, the tomatoes soon defoliated from fungal diseases, but ‘Baby Bear’ happily clung to the cages, its developing orbs putting the tomato crop to shame. By mid-September ‘Baby Bear’ fruits were fully colored, and I started to give them away to visiting kids, who were delighted to begin their Halloween frenzy a month early. I managed to save a couple of them for my own use, but the expressions of joy on the faces of the gift pumpkin recipients was worth every moment of weeding and care that went into growing them.
‘Long Island Cheese’ was placed in raised beds next to the compost bin and raspberry patch. By late August, its vines stretched nearly 30 feet in all directions, and more than a dozen 10- to 15-pound fruits appeared on the vine. While they never developed the intense red orange color of ‘Rouge Vif d’Etampes’, I like their subdued dusky hue. And because ‘Long Island Cheese’ is of the species Cucurbita moschata, rather than C. pepo, as are many pumpkins, it’s resistant to squash vine borer. It also reportedly has excellent flavor, which is not surprising given that my favorite squash, ‘Butternut’, is also a type of C. moschata. I’ll have to roast a survivor of Halloween decor to find out.
This weekend, while everyone else is celebrating Halloween, my wife Karen and I will be preparing an early Thanksgiving dinner. That’s because our son Graham, who goes to college in California, doesn’t get enough time off from school to fly home for the actual Thanksgiving holiday. But, this year, he was able to come home on an early break, so tomorrow the family will gather at our farmhouse for a traditional turkey dinner. Before heading to the grocery store, I did a quick census of what’s still available in our garden to use in the meal. Even though we’ve already had a snowfall, I discovered that our Swiss chard is in top form, along with a big patch of Brussels sprouts and some herbs. We planted the Brussels sprouts back in April and now each plant is about 3 feet tall and the stems are packed with bright green sprouts. This is the first time we’ve grown them and I’ve heard that their flavor actually improves after frost. I think cooking them should be a lot of fun, getting Graham to eat them might be the bigger challenge.
If you’ve got alkaline soil, you can forget about growing oak trees. Common wisdom, but not necessarily true. Take the chinkapin oak (Quercus muhlenbergii) growing in the BHG Test Garden. It actually likes alkaline soil, so you won’t end up with chlorotic, lime-green leaves like you see on some pin oaks.
As a member of the White Oak Group, chinkapin oak acorns sprout immediately (those in the Red Oak Group need 3-5 months’ cold treatment before acorns will germinate).
Trouble is, squirrels and chipmunks pounce on these acorns right away because they’re less bitter than others. That means folks have to snatch acorns before they hit the ground. I harvested mine in September, when acorns were mature but still green. As long as the acorn doesn’t tear from the cup, it should still sprout.
Note the selection of acorns shown to the left. Then scroll down to see what’s growing in my office now, little more than a month later. Maybe you’d like to sprout an acorn! It’s a great activity to do with kids. Or you could just buy a seedling from the National Arbor Day Foundation by clicking here.
If you do grow an oak from seed, you will need to protect it from varmints the first growing season, as they like to dig up seedlings and eat the acorn leftovers. Chicken wire or hardware cloth are the best solutions, from my experience. Good luck!
My old friend Michael Ruggiero turned me on to my favorite garden reference books years ago. He gave my former partner a set of all 14 volumes of the unabridged New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Gardening published in 1964 (“with contributions from 20 horticulturists and authorities from the United States and Canada”). Michael is a long-time instructor at the New York Botanical Garden and the former senior curator in the horticulture department, so he knows a thing or two about accurate horticultural information.
Ever since I’ve been on the look-out for a set of my very own. And after moving from New York City to Des Moines, Iowa, it didn’t take long. I found two complete sets for less than $20 at the Planned Parenthood Book Sale, one for at home and one for here in the office. The series was edited by Thomas H. Everett, a staff member of the NYBG for 55 years and one of the world’s leading horticultural authorities and educators. Besides working with the renowned landscape architect Beatrix Farrand in the 1920s, Everett held many positions at NYBG (including director of horticulture) and was the founder of the acclaimed NYBG School of Horticulture.
According to the introduction to the series, “the New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Gardening provides the reader with a complete, up-to-date, and practical illustrated guide to the cultivation of the trees, shrubs, flowering plants, bulbs, fruits and vegetables which are, or may be, cultivated in gardens in the United States and Canada, both out of doors and in the greenhouse….This encyclopedia has been planned to be a lifetime library of gardening, containing all the information necessary for the novice to become an expert.” I see sets on sale on the internet for anywhere from $75 to $150, but I say head to your local used book store and start rummaging.
When people think about fall color, roses aren’t usually the first plants that come to mind. But this year, some of my roses are putting on a color show that rivals any maple tree. One of the most colorful is the rugosa rose, Frau Dagmar Hartopp. I love this rose because it offers something in almost every season. In the spring it blooms early, producing wonderfully fragrant, single pink flowers. When hot summer weather hits, the plant’s glossy green foliage rarely suffers from Black Spot or any other rose ailment. As fall arrives, the leaves turn a brilliant shade of yellow and by the time they drop off the plant, it has already developed bright orange-red hips (seed pods) that decorate the branches
all winter long. Plus, Frau is a nice compact rose that only grows about 4 feet tall. Other rugosa roses can grow to six or eight feet tall and require pruning to keep them from taking over the garden. And, did I mention it’s winter hardy, too!