Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Soil Testing is a Valuable Gardener's Tool

Well that was exciting.

We spent about 26 hours in the dark and nearly 48 without phone/cable/internet, and for my son nearly a lifetime without XBox.  And with school out, he had to go old school when hanging out with his friends.

The image to the right is a large Norway Maple that was living in the 3' sidewalk strip that went over at 4pm on Monday afternoon and took all the power and cable lines with it.  It impacted about 200 homes in the neighborhood.

No one I know was injured and things seem to be getting back to normal and the clean-up has started.

I have no natural segue into my post on soil testing so here it goes anyway.
Want to do something cool this fall for your garden and bring back some of those old high school chemistry memories (or nightmares)?

Test the soil in your garden.

After you get the leaves and branches cleared up, or anytime up until the ground freezes, look to test some beds in your garden where plants might not be thriving or flowering to their potential.

Digging with a trowel
Why would one care to do this?  Do you have plants that are supposed to flower but do not flower regularly or at all?  Do leaves on your plants turn yellow and do the plants look a little barren with some dieback?  Does your soil look like a Dunkin Donuts coffee with cream, or a Starbucks Dark Roast?  Do your plants look like they are just sitting there year after year and not thriving and growing and looking lush and happy?  Do your have Blueberries that don't berry or annuals that don't do much after you plant them in the spring?  Do you grow Asparagus but not really have much to harvest?

If anything in your garden is not thriving, a soil test will help you to answer the question, why.  It will also make specific recommendations for how to remedy the problem.

Soil Sampling Tool
Locally, I use the UMass Soil and Tissue Sampling Laboratory, it is the best $15 (per sample) you can spend in your garden.  I suggest you try and break down your garden into separate beds to test.  If you have a vegetable garden, that should be one test.  A perennial bed would be a separate test.  Your front foundation would be a separate test.  Ideally you want to get several (5-10) different small samples from each bed you are testing and blend them into one sample.  This will tell you generally what is happening in a specific bed and minimize the chance of one sample skewing the result.

A previous post, It's all about the Soil, goes into great detail about soil structure, pH and nutrients.  If you want an in depth discussion about all the details, the post covers most of the bases.  The previous link also goes into great detail about the information that will be contained in the results of your soil test, but the lab should also supply quality information.

This post will go through the details of how to collect good soil samples.

Separate the top part
from the soil in
the root zone
When collecting the sample to submit to the laboratory, it is critical that you get soil from the root zone where the plants retrieve their nutrients.  There are two easy ways to obtain samples.  First you take a hand trowel and scrape away the surface mulch and dig down 6 inches into the soil.  The soil at the bottom of the hole is what you want for your sample.  If you have a bed of Rhododendrons that you are testing, dig half a dozen holes around the bed and blend the soil you get from the bottom of the holes.  The second, and easiest way to collect samples, is with a soil sampling tool, a long, hollowed out metal rod that you can push into the soil.  When you push the tool into the soil and remove it, the hollow rod contains a long core of soil.  You can remove the top six inches and take the remaining several inches from deep in the root zone.

Lay out the soil for drying
When you have your group of samples you need to lay them out to dry.  In the image I have used old birthday plates as the drying rack.  Once the soil is on the plate you can break up the clumps, remove any big stones and remove the stray piece of mulch that may have gotten into the sample.  After a day or two, the soil is dry enough to be bagged, labeled and sent to the lab.  Take care not to mix soils or label improperly, because if you apply the wrong item to resolve a problem to the wrong bed, you may end up killing some plants.

Rocks and twigs removed and clumps
broken down, ready for sample
When filling out the paperwork, the form will ask you to classify the plant material in the bed you are testing.  Filling this out appropriately will result in the lab providing you with accurate instructions for remedying any problems.  For example, if one of your beds contains Rhododendrons, Azaleas and Mountain Laurels, you would classify that as "Acid-loving Shrubs"(see form).  If the results say the bed has a pH of 7.1, it will tell you how much acidifier to add to the bed to achieve the proper pH.

UMass does an excellent job of eliminating the guesswork, but their test results and suggestions are only as good as the samples they receive, so spend the time and collect good quality samples.

Come early spring, you will be armed with information to improve the environment of your planting beds, and in short time you will start to see results in the health and vigor of your plants.

If you grow vegetables, this is a must for ensuring you do not have high levels of metals and lead in your soil.

Packaged, labeled and ready to go

Thursday, October 25, 2012

What do you do with Hornworms after you have caught them?

Fat and Juicy Hornworms
Do you have a little pent up anger towards the many pests and critters that take advantage of all your hard work in the garden?

Anyone who has grown tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes and other members of the Nightshade Family (Solanaceae), have run into the dreaded Hornworm at some point.  These big, fat, fleshy green caterpillars have been known to devour the leaves and fruit on these plants.  They are distinctive with their black and white striping and the little red horn on their trailing end.

Tomato Hornworm Fact Sheet

Given their bright green color they can be hard to detect until they sit fat and happy on the lone branches left on the plant.  Constant vigilance in checking your plants can keep them at bay, especially when you notice leaves being chomped.  Marigolds have been known to keep them at a distance, and apparently they even glow under black lights at night.

So what does one do with hornworms after they have been caught?

The other day while visiting our local reptile store with my son and a friend of his, I noticed a container with several very large hornworms feeding on some grotesque leafy mixture.  When I asked the store owner what he used them for, he said that Bearded Dragons love them.

Funny...we have a Bearded Dragon at home.

So for 50 cents my son and his friend gleefully took one home and immediately fed it to our Dragon.  After about 3 seconds of measuring up this fat, green treat, the Dragon inhaled it with four or five quick chews, sat down in the corner and took a nap.

Below are a few images of our Dragon having his meal, this should be good therapy for those who have suffered the damage of feeding hornworms.  It is kind of a funny encounter of two living creatures that would never find each other in their natural habitats.

Going in for the kill...

First Bite!

Man, this is going to be a big bite.

Almost there

Time for a nap.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Some of my BFF Trees for Fall Color in New England

Sugar Maple, Japanese Maple, Dogwood, Stewartia,
Sourwood, Ginkgo, Katsura
So many trees add to the amazing display of fall color in New England, but what we see when driving through the hills of Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Maine differ significantly from what we see in our own neighborhoods.  In the suburban neighborhood the colors can be stunning with many of the introduced plantings in people's landscape.

If you are interested in learning more and tracking the areas where color is peaking in New England, go to the Yankee Foliage site, and you will be more than overwhelmed with ideas and information.
When you see fall color out in nature in New England, the color comes from a large variety of big native trees:  Maple, Oak, Beech, Cherry, Ash, Birch, Linden, Tulip Poplar, Hickory and others.  There is also a large group of smaller, understory trees that contribute: Dogwood, Redbud, Sassafras(several groves in Winchester), Maple among others.  This native diversity does not exist as much in the suburban landscape, but many introduced cultivars can make the color in smaller landscapes just as intense.

Following is a group of my favorite trees for fall color that are on full exhibit now.  It is not an exhaustive list and I will include some of the trees that color later in a subsequent post.  To be included on this list, the tree must provide the landscape more than just some colorful leaves.  I also apologize for my somewhat lame photography, I am still learning...

Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)

Sugar Maple - Variety of color
on one tree
The quintessential New England tree for fall color is the Sugar Maple.  This year with more rain and a better cooling in the early fall has given us one of the best displays in years.  Cooler weather will bring out more of the orange and red, especially in the Maples.  If you have the space, these are beautiful shade trees with wonderful bark.  Unfortunately, with pollution and the warming, the trees natural habitat is moving north, and one day, Boston may no longer have the benefit of these beautiful trees.  Even now, trees that are not in optimal conditions are showing stress, which is apparent in smaller leaves and earlier color.  If your tree is well colored and losing most of its leaves as of now, then it is suffering from some stress.  Contact a good arborist who will provide ideas to improve its condition.

Katsura Tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum)

Katsura Tree- Apricot fall color
This is a real favorite of mine for its wonderful shaped leaves and variety of leaf color throughout the year.  The leaves emerge in the spring bright green with some red and then turn to a beautiful blue-green during the summer.  In fall they turn this fantastic apricot color and sometimes have a sweet scent as they dry.  When small, the tree can look similar to our native redbud (Cercis canadensis), but with smaller leaves.  As the tree grows it has a distinctive look with its branching and how it holds its leaves.

In Winchester we have had a number of old Katsura Trees that were given to us by a Japanese sister city at the turn of the last century.  One of the largest still exists off of Highland Ave and is a monster at 70-80'.

Ginkgo Tree (Ginkgo biloba)

Ginkgo biloba - Unique leaves
and beautiful yellow color.
This truly is a one-of-a-kind tree.  Botanically it is related to nothing else alive on the planet.  As you can see from the leaf, it is different, and as a young tree  can be very awkward looking.  However, with some maturity it will develop into a beautifully formed tree.  It is also a little different in that it is dioecious, meaning unlike most trees that have male and female parts on the same tree, the individual trees are either male or female.  I bring this up because on my college campus, each fall a mature female Ginkgo Tree would bear its fruit and it smelled like a port-o-potty dumping site.  Nowadays, female trees don't make it into the trade very often, but it is definitely something to avoid with this tree

The leaves in fall turn a wonderful yellow, and in one day they decide to all drop from the tree.

Bloodgood Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum "Bloodgood")

Bloodgood Japanese Maple
This is the classic red upright Japanese Maple, in full size it will mature to 30' and in mostly sun will maintain its deep burgundy red color throughout the year.  Once the frost hits it starts to slowly brighten up, and in a good year turns a brilliant bright orange/red.  The grace and layers of these tress is what makes them so valuable in the landscape, and as relatively slow growers, they are easy to maintain and shape to any size.

In the image below, you can see the beauty in using several different cultivars (varieties).  In all seasons, it provides a contrast of color and leaf shape.  The green Japanese Maples come in several shades and different colorations throughout the year, and the reds show the same diversity.  Ideally these Maples are used as individual specimens, but often awkward trees are best grouped together into small groves.

A grove of many different Japanese Maples in color
on an estate I recently managed

Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)

Cornus florida 
There are three major species of Dogwood here in New England.  The native, Cornus florida flowers first before the leaves come out on the tree and is one of the finest flower displays in the world of trees. The Korean Dogwood, Cornus kousa, is the last to flower in May and the flowers cover the tree after the leaves have emerged, so it is a very different look.  In between, in terms of flower timing and leaf emergence are the hybrid Dogwoods, that are a mix of the native and the Korean.  All have wonderful flowers and dark orange to deep burgundy read leaves in the fall.  With so many other bright yellow and orange colors out there, this is a nice, deep, dark fall color.  There can often be quite a bit of variation depending on the sun exposure of the tree.  More shade on the leaves leads to less glucose production and lighter colors.

Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis "Cole's Select")

Amelanchier canadensis"Cole's Select",
range of colors on one tree
This is a great native that has many newer cultivars that help to accentuate some of its finer qualities.  This is large shrub, small tree that is best as a multi-stem plant allowed to grow in its natural form.  It is not grown for its form like the Japanese Maple or Stewartia, but rather for its spring flowers followed by summer berries and wonderful bright fall colors.  These are best in groups as understory trees away from the terrace or driveway.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Seed to Plate Garden: Fifth Graders Screaming for More Vegetables

Vittorio Ettore in blue shirt talking with the kids
about the garden's progress over the summer.
Several weeks ago, I wrote a piece for the Winchester Star on the Seed To Plate program here in Winchester.    Due to limits on space, I couldn't write all I wanted about this very cool program, so here is a more complete summary of the program and what has happened this year in the garden.  Unfortunately, the article, again, was not posted online.

Seed to Plate is a wonderful program created by local Chef, Vittorio Ettore to help connect children with the food they eat.  Vittorio is the Chef/Owner of A Tavola and Bistro 5, two fantastic restaurants in Winchester and West Medford respectively, and his passion is to provide food inspired from his native Tuscan roots, that is created from fresh and often locally sourced ingredients.  As a shamless plug, my wife and I are huge fans of both his restaurants. (I received no compensation in any form for my blatant support of Winchester's finest Chef.)

Some of the available stone used in building
the herb garden, here after the harvest event.
In 2011, I helped Vittorio to design a simple garden behind the Historical Society's Sanborn House.  The building is an example of the Beaux Arts style, commonly used during the turn of the past century, and fortunately we had some stone left from an old temple to use in building the planting beds and some columns for structure.  On a small budget, Vittorio and his organization have done wonders with drip irrigation, a shed and composting bins.

Vittorio works with the fourth and fifth-graders at Ambrose School to plant, maintain and harvest the garden, while working with the teachers to help the kids learn about the science behind the process of growing food.  The teachers have integrated this into their curriculum in science.

Kids coming in to sample beans, cherry tomatoes, chard
fennel and many other items.
This past spring, fourth-graders planted tomatoes, soy beans, beets, fennel, corn, string beans, chard, kale and many more herbs and vegetables in their garden behind the Sanborn House.  This fall, as fifth-graders, they reaped the rewards of their hard work.

On Friday, September 14th, all Ambrose fifth-graders had a chance to view the progress of their gardens over the summer.  Vittorio spoke to the children about the successful growing year and showed them zucchini blossoms, gigantic green beans, nasturtium flowers, coriander seeds, licorice-scented fennel and other treats from the garden.  He then invited them into the garden to smell, touch and taste the rewards of  their work.

Two girls tentatively eating Nasturtium Flowers.
You can't imagine the sight of a pack of young children grabbing vegetables and voraciously eating them.  A couple of young girls were sharing and comparing a few veggies, while some boys had a nasturtium leaf/flower eating contest.  Nasturtium leaves are a little spicy, so they were obviously showing off a little.  In this environment with Vittorio encouraging them, the kids were freely sampling veggies and herbs that would be shunned at most kitchen tables.

Cristy Walsh and Kristen Remondi, parents of fifth-graders and Co-Chairs of the Seed to Plate program, helped Vittorio oversee the program by organizing parents to come two times a week to maintain the garden over the summer.  Many would come with their children to share in the work of training plants, pruning, weeding and enjoying some of the ripe produce.  Vittorio himself worked in the garden twice a week during the summer, and the automated irrigation system made their work easier and kept everything growing strong.

Harvest Day-- it was like a swarm of locust hit the garden!
Vittorio not only wants to teach the children about the source of their food, he wants to teach them all aspects of growing for themselves.  “If it’s dirty, it’s perfect for kids.  I want them to learn how to do everything,” say Ettore.  “We will collect seeds this fall and start our compost pile too.” This year’s fourth graders will learn about composting and start the new compost pile with the plants left after the harvest.  They will then add compost  and prepare the planting beds for winter.  In the spring, they will start the process over again by growing seeds indoors and planting the garden when the weather permits.

Chard and Fennel at this table for bagging.
To help fund seed purchases and the new compost bins this year, fifth-graders grew salad greens in the early spring and packaged them for Ettore’s restaurant, Bistro 5.  A lucky fifth-grader was selected by lottery from the fifth-grade class to toss and serve these salads at a fundraiser held at the restaurant.  From the event, they collected over $300, more than enough to purchase the materials for the new compost bins.  Vittorio and the parents committee are constantly trying to raise funds and have local contractors and retailers donate time and supplies to continue the program.

Monday, September 17th, was harvest time and nearly thirty fifth-graders showed up after school to pick the vegetables in preparation for the feast to come.  Vittorio and the parents organized the children into groups to pick all of the vegetables and put them in bags so parents could take them home and prepare dishes for the harvest feast.  After harvesting, the children came back around to remove the plants and form a pile of green material for the compost pile.

The culmination of all the hard work by Vittorio, the fifth grade parents and the fifth-graders themselves was the Harvest Feast on Wednesday, September 19th.  The Parents and Vittorio prepared and served about a dozen different dishes:  Quartered Beets with French Melon Sauce, Minestrone Soup, Fried Kale Chips, Sautéed Zucchini, Roasted Fennel, Sautéed Beet Greens and a big salad with Chard and Nasturtium Leaves, tomatoes among others.  

The Ambrose school lunchroom was packed with fourth and fifth-graders waiting to sample their harvested food, and the principal brought them up a table at a time and they had a blast.  It was fun to go table to table and ask what was their favorite dish.  While Roasted Beets with a French Melon Sauce may be a stretch for any school lunch program to prepare, these kids devoured everything.  I was hoping to get a small cup of Vittorio's Minestrone Soup, but it was long gone before the parents were able to sample, but I was able to taste some scraps that remained after the kids did their damage.

The parent's committee explaining
and serving the food they prepared
Everyone thought the Minestrone Soup was awesome.  A table of girls all with plates filled with their harvested vegetables agreed that the Edamame was their favorite, but they also liked the salad and Kale Chips.  Everyone enjoyed the special lunch, and showed appreciation for Ettore and the parent’s committee.

The Harvest Feast was the culmination of the project for the fifth-graders, and now fourth graders will take over care of the garden by starting the composting process and preparing the beds for winter over the coming weeks.

Imagine what would happen if a few parents or a local Chef in every town took the effort to develop a simple program like Seed To Plate.

For more information:

The other lunch served that day was a steamed Hot Dog
with Baked Beans...

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Madeline Lord: Art Resurrected from Junk

Madeline's first piece
cut with a torch
Over the past several months I have had the opportunity to meet and get to know a local artist named Madeline Lord.  I first introduced myself to her this summer as I had learned of her metal artwork through a client who proudly displayed several pieces in their garden.  Always wanting to have access to new inspiration and ideas, I visited her home and workshop here in Winchester and instantly fell in love with her art and found a wonderful person who is amazingly passionate about her work.

Upon learning that 15 of her pieces were going on display in the gallery at the Next Door Theater on Cross Street in Winchester, MA, I wrote a piece about her and her exhibit for the Winchester Star two weeks ago.  Unfortunately, the piece has not been posted online, but following is a narrative of my discussions with her.

Madeline's Show

Next Door Theater @ 40 Cross Street   


Gallery is open on Sundays from 3-5pm and one hour prior to performances or by appointment.

All of her pieces at the gallery are for sale, as well as many others that she has at her workshop.

Madeline also creates work on commission and loves to work with parents to transform children's art into metallic form.

Madeline has two websites for more information, one is her personal site and the second is her collaboration with photographer Bob Hesse:


In the early 1980’s, Madeline Lord met a Hungarian woman at a Bedford art show who needed a ride to her evening welding class at the Shawsheen Valley Technical School.   Madeline took her to class and soon joined the class and started cutting metal in 1983.  She had been a painter for most of her life but always wanted to create sculpture, and for many years after taking the class she created two-dimensional ‘pictures’ cut out of metal.

In 1987 she moved to her current home in Winchester and bought her first Welding Torch so she could make bases on which her sculpture could stand.

"Dan Rather" on the day of his
retirement from CBS
One day at the Winchester Transfer Station while collecting raw material for her work, she saw people throwing out their yellow, blue and even pink enamel painted appliances, and she knew that these colorful pieces of metal could add a critical element to her work.  Her pieces were still flat, but now had the additional element of color.

With the painted metal she started making animals and other items, and for the wedding of one of her children made doves with berried branches in their beaks.

"Umbrellas on Parade" in front of
the Winchester Public Library
While in New York City after 9/11, she was watching people in a rainstorm outside of Pennsylvania Station with their coats and umbrellas, and the umbrellas seemed to form a communal shield to protect the people from the elements.  This inspired her to create an installation of people under umbrellas that exhibited on the lawn behind the Winchester Library in 2005.

The exhibit was not permanent, and she replaced it with the “Umbrella Parade” sculpture that sits on the front lawn of the library today, which represents people getting together and finding communal protection in bad weather.

In 2005, one of her more transformational installations was the “Buddy Garden”, a metallic recreation of fifth grader’s art in metal form that sits in front of the school.  This turned her head to working in three dimensions.  After this she met Bob Hesse, a local photographer, and they started to collaborate on pieces.  As Madi says, two sets of eyes are often better than one, and they both have a keen vision for their pieces and shared vision for their work.

The "Buddy Garden" at Lynch School.  All of these pieces are connected
to an underground metal grid.  Each piece is a metal representation
of a Lynch child's piece of art

"Lascaux" named for the bull in
the Palaeolithic paintings in the
Lascaux Caves in France
Often it is a unique piece of metal that makes the piece, one day she was searching through piles of metal and "Hamlet" showed up.  One piece of metal sparked the idea and then a series of performers (Portia, Diva, Lear, Chanteuse) showed up, many of which are on display currently at the Next Door Theater gallery.

The body of "Lascaux" was instantly recognizable to Madeline, but it took her months to find the appropriate legs.  "Big Red" was formed with two wonderfully painted pieces of metal, but she had to take apart an antique typewriter for the keys to make the flower's stamens.

"Fallen Angel"
What makes her work fascinating is that you 'get it' immediately.  The pieces are recognizable but as you get close and see the different, common, elements that make them up, you are drawn in further.  Some pieces are relatively simple and the vision comes from one or two key elements, but others are this wonderful amalgamation of highway barricade, machine tool parts, stove parts, sieves, car parts and on and on.

"Big Red" with antique
typewriter keys as
flower stamens
She and Bob travel often to their scrap metal resource in Readeville, MA, for inspiration and carloads of rusty metal.  They let the metal pieces guide them in their creative process, and often find themselves switching pieces from one sculpture to another until they are complete to their satisfaction.  When spending time in her driveway she had separate piles of metal for legs, arms, bodies and then just a bunch of miscellaneous piles with interesting pieces.  Sometimes they have to wait months until they find the right scrap to finish a piece.

Brian Milauskas, Artistic Producing Director at the Next Door Theater has known Madeline for years and is happy to be showing many of her pieces in the "Performers and Patrons" show in his gallery.

This work is perfect for outdoor display on terraces or in gardens.  The metal benefits from a little rubbing of boiled Linseed Oil to give it a nice even patina.

I think the addition of a one of a kind piece like Madeline's can add year round interest to any garden or home.

"The Juggler"